“Bridging the Advancement Gap for Frontline Employees”: Actionable Ideas for Motivated Employers

Healthcare employee wearing scrubs making a bed.

McKinsey & Company Research Summary

The below article is part 2 of a summary of the McKinsey & Company July 2022 report, entitled “Bridging the advancement gap: What frontline employees want – and what employers think they want.” Part 2 is a summarized look at the path forward for employers to help bridge the frontline upward mobility gap.

In Catalyst Learning’s August newsletter, we published Part 1 and summarized this amazing survey data from the employee perspective. (see last month’s article).  In Part 1 we learned that of 20 measured associate needs, job growth was ranked #1, and learning opportunity as #3. When thinking about career growth attributes, employees look more for learning opportunities and aligned skill sets while employers and managers put higher emphasis on job title growth, benefits, and scheduling. (see Exh. 2 on page 5 of study for full data)

McKinsey & Company research suggests that frontline employees are more ambitious than employers think. A high percentage are confident they would be successful in their next position, and almost 3 out of 4 are considering applying for further roles. Employers should seek to harness this hidden potential and retain valuable associates, especially in a tight labor environment. Removing growth barriers and aligning career paths with associate needs is important (as described in part 1), but here are other ways to support employees to bridge the gap:

Communicate, Communicate, and then Communicate Some More!

Better communication about opportunity doesn’t just mean posting roles on internal job boards, or a possible 1×1 with a manager. To be most effective, employers should clearly show career pathways for lower paid employees at different stages of employment. For example, during onboarding, HR can show the pathways for advancement, noting skills needed for achievement. This could also mean connecting new frontline associates with others who have already advanced for help.

Employees can also be connected with an internal mentor who can provide formal or informal coaching. A few months into employment, HR teams can ensure frontline employees have an understanding of available opportunities – such as promotions, shifts in responsibility, pay increases or rotational opportunities. Managers can be provided with career plan tools to help coach associates as well. There are many intervention points where engaged employees could see a framework for upward mobility.

Invest in Skill Building and Professional Development

Employers should find development opportunities for lower paid associates, with an aim to align skills of employees with a match to high-need, in-demand jobs. One way to do this could be stretch assignments for individuals. Consider on-job training where associates learn new skills through work, or cross-training opportunities with different job functions. Besides skill growth, this can show employees what different opportunities are out there. In a healthcare system, HR teams may be interested in showing motivated entry-level employees allied health roles, like lab or surgical techs.

Employers can also invest in learning and development from outside sources. This should be communicated in a multi-channel approach, and McKinsey data suggests that employees retain communication on L&D best from informal communications. So make sure managers are aware of L&D opportunities, or maybe identify peer leaders within the health system who can influence others.

Equipping Managers of Frontline Employees

Health systems could teach managers how to notice the particular ambitions of direct reports. They could also help them recognize challenges that those employees may face. Think about offering managers training on being effective people managers; in some cases the frontline employees themselves grow into these same supervisory roles, so err on the side of earlier people management teaching and support. Consider building your people-management metrics into management performance reviews and incentives, so it is taken seriously.

Look for Disincentives to Upward Mobility Which May Not be Easily Visible

McKinsey & Company shows that there is a gap between what frontline employees want, and what employers think they want. (see full report here). Look at what your health system is incentivizing and see if it aligns with the needs of employees. For example, when associate benefits are not being utilized (tuition reimbursement for example), try to learn why not? Ask for feedback to find root cause issues. It could be lack of awareness, not enough time, or maybe the employees not seeing how higher education will help her/him get a better job.

If your health system is identifying hidden potential and has a track record of demonstrated career pathways, don’t be afraid to promote it! Publicly spotlighting employees who have advanced is a motivational reminder of what is possible!

Catalyst Learning is a company that specializes in activating the potential in frontline healthcare employees. Catalyst Learning has served more than 670 acute care hospitals with professional development solutions. These solutions increase employee retention, morale, and quality of service. Our solutions empower entry-level workers to lead and thrive. CLiMB for example is an online library of 10-20 minute microlearnings. It teaches basic professionalism, communication and time management. CareerCare helps map employee skills with a healthcare jobs database, and assists them in creating a career and learning plan. School at Work (SAW) prepares employees for post-secondary education with a rapid review of the essential skills and development of career plan.  Many of our customers are recognized by CareerSTAT as being champions of our nation’s frontline healthcare employees – ask us for a case study!


Bridging the advancement gap: What frontline employees want – and what employers think they want.” McKinsey & Company, July 2022.  By Swathi Bhaskaran, Andrew Davis, Christophe Desbriere, and Sara Wasserteil – This white paper was done in collaboration with Cara Plus, and the study itself was titled “McKinsey and Cara Plus Frontline Employee Survey.”

For more information on Catalyst Learning’s lessons learned in 20 years of front-line employee development, see Chapter 13 “Front Line Employees” authored by Founder & CEO Lynn Fischer, in the ATD Talent Development Handbook.