How Professional Development Programs Work

Woman giving professional development lesson
Professional development programs can help you learn new skills and get ahead in your career.
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Professional development programs -- activities designed to enhance professional acumen or advance a person's career -- are popular among both employees and employers. Many companies value basing hiring decisions on a candidate's overall fit into the corporate culture as well as matching a specific set of needs with skills. The idea is that in the long-term, they would rather invest in a candidate that has the right attitude and compatible personality, even if he or she may not initially have the entire spot-on skill set needed for the role.

But there are also professional development programs that are used to build mandated or government-defined skills into a workforce. For example, teachers may be required to maintain certain credentials, or workers in technical professions may have to stay abreast of the latest industry developments.


Whatever the basis for the program, the goal of any professional development curriculum is to enhance someone's knowledge or understanding of a particular topic to benefit him or her at work. These types of programs often occur on the job, meaning participants are taking part in order to address an aspect of their current profession. It may be a prerequisite for a promotion or part of a corporation's internal training or orientation cycle, and in some cases it may be required by a manager to improve an employee's performance.

And the methods by which people participate in professional development are just as varied as the programs and fields these programs serve. Many companies conduct their own staff development tracks and may even have people on staff whose jobs are to manage employee development programs. Others outsource the curriculum to consultants or agencies that specialize in tailoring their programs to fit the schedule and needs of professionals.

These programs are available in nearly every line of work, and in the next section, we'll explore some of the industries in which professional development is particularly popular.


Industries that Use Professional Development Programs

Professional development programs, whether formal curriculum administered by an employer or courses voluntarily taken to bolster understanding of some particular topic, exist in nearly every industry. But there are several fields in which continuing education plays a critical role.

For example, certification and licensing requirements for teachers and nurses may vary from state to state. And within both professions, progress and change happen at a pretty rapid pace. One way the industries help ensure their workforce is keeping abreast of the latest developments is by requiring practitioners to complete continuing education units (CEUs).


The International Association for Continuing Education and Training (IACET) defines a CEU as 10 hours of participation in an organized continuing education experience under responsible sponsorship, capable direction and qualified instruction. These activities are available in a range of topics and may be applied to certification requirements, receiving a promotion or raise, or even credit toward a graduate degree, in some cases.

Manufacturing is another industry in which professional development plays a critical role. Six Sigma, a popular methodology developed originally by Motorola to improve its manufacturing process, has become a staple in many large corporations [source: Dan]. The basic idea behind Six Sigma is that, by eliminating defects or deviations in a manufacturing process, you can minimize unnecessary costs. (You can read more about Six Sigma and its application in How Six Sigma Works.) Six Sigma practitioners can become certified through the Institute of Industrial Engineers or through the American Society for Quality.

Other industries, including engineering and architecture, use professional development programs to keep workers up to speed on the latest methodologies and research. In the next section, we'll discuss how professional development programs are helping employers close culture gaps by offering support for non-English speakers.


Professional Development Programs for Non-English Speakers

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), the U.S. workforce grew by 16.7 million people during the 1990s. And 38 percent of these workers were immigrants. These days, roughly one in every seven U.S. workers is an immigrant [source: NCSL]. Employers are responding by offering on-the-job training in non-English speakers' native languages to help ensure they develop the skills necessary to perform their jobs. By doing so, employers can make sure their staff are properly trained and have reasonable opportunities for promotion and advancement in a predominantly English-speaking environment.

To understand the necessity of providing non-English instruction to employees, you have to consider that according to the 2000 U.S. Census, one out of every five U.S. residents speaks a foreign language at home. In strict numbers, this translates into more than 45 million people. But this data is approaching the end of its shelf life. Of course, this is not to say that their native language is their only language; most respondents report being able to speak English, too. But when you consider the number of workers in the U.S. whose primary language is not English, effectively training such a large percentage of the workforce is critical.


Providing training in someone's native language becomes even more important in work environments that may be dangerous, such as construction sites or jobs in which heavy machinery is involved. In fact, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the division of the U.S. Department of Labor responsible for enforcing safety and health standards for workers, mandates that training be provided in a language the worker understands [source: Occupational Health & Safety].

In the next section, we'll take a look at some of the specialized methods for conducting professional development programs.


Specialized Professional Development Programs

Professional development programs are as diverse as those who participate in them, and how they are administered is often dictated by the schedules or workloads of those involved. Some approaches may require intensive classroom lectures that culminate in an exam or certification test, while others can be taken completely online at an individualized pace suited to the user. Other approaches may include professional consultation or coaching, mentoring, or certification.

Workshops are popular for companies interested in training groups of employees simultaneously. These are typically instructor-led, either by a manager within the company or an outside specialist hired to provide specific training. Workshops tend to be more interactive, with exercises built into the course to help participants demonstrate mastery of a particular topic.


Another way employees can facilitate professional development in a group setting is through seminars. These are less interactive than workshops and usually consist of a lecturer and little interaction among participants. Another difference between seminars and workshops is that seminars generally cater to large, industry-wide audiences because the subject matter is more broadly applicable. Workshops, on the other hand, are usually narrower in scope with the emphasis being on one particular company or division within a company.

And, of course, professional development can take place in a traditional classroom setting as well. Lectures and instruction that require practical application of knowledge, such as laboratories for healthcare professionals or studios for artists, usually take place in person with a live instructor.

Finally, online courses have also had a major impact on the availability of professional development programs. Ubiquitous Internet access has made many programs of these programs more accessible because employees can participate without having to leave the office -- saving employers travel expense and some lost productivity. And most industry conferences these days archive the content they present at a live event and make it available online. So, even if you were not able to attend, you can still benefit from presentations, demonstrations and keynote speeches you might have missed in person.

If you're thinking a professional development program might be for you, read on to learn some of the pros and cons of participating.


Benefits of Professional Development Programs

Increasing the competency and effectiveness of employees is usually the driving factor behind a company's decision to either offer or require professional development. But these programs can also boost morale by positioning participants to advance their careers through acquiring new skills or gaining insight into an area of the company they might be unfamiliar with. And being selected to travel to a conference can make an employee feel special or rewarded for his or her hard work.

But managers have to balance these benefits with the costs associated with such programs. Class or instructor fees, travel expenses, downtime and lost productivity are just some considerations to make. Another is the applicability of the particular program. Is it really necessary? Will it have a measurable impact on day-to-day operations? Will the staff be able to participate while juggling their normal workload?


Determining what's best for the business will dictate whether a particular program is adopted, but employees interested in these opportunities can bolster their case with examples of how the experience will make them more competent or efficient. Many professional workshops, seminars and online classes offer testimonials demonstrating how attendees have benefited. For example, the Disney Institute, an intensive professional workshop designed to educate participants on the business strategies that have helped bring Disney success, devotes portions of its Web site to sharing success stories of how graduates from the program have benefited through participation.

As professionals become more and more specialized, and as companies narrow their core offerings, the importance of staying current on the latest developments is increasingly important. Professional development programs, whether an online class about harnessing the power of social media or a live conference with expert speakers, are a great way to stay competitive in an ever-changing professional landscape.

Read on to the next page to find lots more information about professional development and learning.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • BusinessReview. "The Masters of Six Sigma Offer Tips on Ways to Effectively Implement the Production Strategy into Your Business." (June 18, 2010)
  • Dan, Avi. "Why a Little Discipline Is Good for the Creative Process." Advertising Age. June 15, 2010.
  • International Association for Continuing Education and Training. "Continuing Education Units". (June 30, 2010)
  • National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL). "Immigrants in the Workforce: Some Fast Facts." (August, 2005).
  • Occupational Health & Safety. "OSHA Enforcement Memo Focused on Non-English Speakers." April 26, 2010
  • The Disney Institute. "Case Studies." (June 30, 2010)
  • U.S. Census Bureau. "Language Use and English-Speaking Ability: 2000" October 2003.
  • Worldwide Learn. "Non-Traditional Learning." (June 30, 2010)