As the job market picks up, there is a fear by employers of high turnover due to a lack of engagement with their staff. As a result, as the market settles, engagement of critical talent is a top concern for companies, according to new survey from Aon Hewitt.

In the past two years, retention levels have been at an all-time high, driven in large part by the 10% domestic unemployment rate. In the 1,328 person survey by the human resource consultancy, 31% of respondents voted top talent retention as their biggest issue coming out of the recession. The second biggest concern was business strategy execution (18%), followed by employee engagement (16%).

Investing in people is therefore a requirement, as expanding a company’s capacities is one of the most critical strategies for retaining talent, says Seymour Adler, senior vice president for Aon Hewitt’s talent and rewards practice.

“Training, mentoring, [and] tuition reimbursement is one element of it,” he says. “[The] way top companies are doing it is by taking a very disciplined approach to assessing their talent and [identifying] the gap between what they need to do and talent.”

It’s also about expanding talent to move up in the organization, “to be the best underwriter, to be the best nurse,” he added.

Managers need to talk with their employees to help keep them. Adler explains that he often asks managers to tell him what their employees ambitions are over the next three to five years. “It is sad how few managers say with certainty they’ve had those conversations and really know what employees would like to accomplish,” he says.

The conversations must be ongoing, as a 28-year-old employee may have aspirations to travel the world and then when he or she gets married a year later, the fun and joy of being on the road has suddenly disappeared. “People’s lives change, their personal ambitions change,” Adler adds. “So you have to have those conversations, and based on those, figure out how to support … development.”

Adler suggests a three-step process to keep employees:

  1. Gap analysis. “The manager and employee need to say,” Adler says, “‘what do I need him to be doing in 2012, what does he aspire to do, and what are the gaps?’”
  2. Development planning. Managers and employees, Adler says, need to have discussion on how to close the gaps and capture it in a document, called an individual development plan, which “everybody ought to have.”
  3. Execution. “Most learning is done through job experience, [and] while I’m all in favor of tuition reimbursement or sending employees to formal training … the real development is taking the concepts you learn in the classroom and applying them and learning what worked for them,” Adler concludes.

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