It wasn’t long ago that career development was a workplace nice-to-do. Now, it’s no longer even a need-to-do, but a “non-negotiable survival strategy” for employers.

The perk is growing in popularity and importance because it’s essential in driving employee engagement, Julie Winkle Giulioni, cofounder and principal of consulting and instructional design firm DesignArounds, said this week at the Society for Human Resource Management’s annual conference in New Orleans.

“It’s the Swiss Army knife for managers — it’s flexible, it’s productive, it does a bunch of different jobs for you,” she said. “When people feel like they invest in their work, they are happier at work. And it develops a positive reputation that will drive other employees to your organization.”

Additionally, according to research from consulting firm Korn Ferry Hay Group, while a competitive compensation and benefits program is often a key reason that employees join an organization, a lack of career development opportunities is the No. 1 reason employees leave organizations.

Career development encompasses everything, from promotion and management opportunities, training and classes to coaching and simply providing mentorship to employees.

“It doesn’t have to be huge or onerous,” Giulioni said. Employers can start off small, she said, noting that career development needs to be practiced constantly.

“It isn’t an annual exercise of checking boxes, but an ongoing exercise of checking in with employees,” Giulioni said. “It’s like brushing your teeth — you don’t do it once or twice a year; you have to do it daily.”

Beverly Kaye, CEO of Career Systems International, which provides employee engagement programs, says it’s important for employers and employees to think about career development as a climbing wall, with multiple places to go in any direction, rather than a ladder with only so many rungs. Employers should have conversations with employees about what kind of work they want to do, what problems they want to solve and what kind of legacy they want to leave.

Kaye and Giulioni offered some tips for how to mentor employees:

1. Flag performance: Give an employee details on a specific project. “Tell them, ‘I think you nailed this’ and ‘I think you need to work on this,’” Giulioni said.
2. Focus on development: “Managers can tell their employee, ‘I think it will improve your development if you try it this way instead of that way,” Giulioni said.
3. Foster performance: Ask an employee how he thinks he did on a certain project and listen. Then the manager should tell the employee how she thinks he did.
4. Celebrate achievements: Celebrate employees’ achievements and growth. Giulioni says it can be as simple as telling a worker, “I saw how much you changed from last week to this week in how you addressed the team.”

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