Photo by Christina @ Blog produced in partnership with SingleSprout.

If you’re currently hiring engineers for software development, AI research, and other high-skill technology roles, you know that these are some of the fastest-growing careers with the most in-demand employees. 

And as difficult as it is to attract top talent in a competitive labor market, the greater challenge – and more pressing business need – is in retaining key performers after you’ve invested large sums of time, money, and effort getting them to join your company.

On top of that, the typical rate of attrition for all employees in tech is around 13%, and it’s even higher for developers. At the low end, estimates put developer attrition at around 22%, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics recently reported turnover rates as high as 57%. Yikes!

At the same time, the cost to hire new developers is at least $10-60K according to DevSkiller, and the cost to replace a lapsed engineer can be as much as 250% of the departing employee’s salary, based on estimates from LinkedIn. That’s no small potatoes.

So what are businesses doing to attract and –  more importantly, retain – top engineering talent? Many companies focus too narrowly on generous compensation packages and underutilized benefits, but what is often overlooked is investing in employees’ professional development.


The case for investing in professional development

Why should companies – and people teams –  focus their retention efforts on training, upskilling, and professional development? 

Engineers want it

First and foremost, because developers want it! According to SingleSprout’s own surveys, more than a third of engineers (34.7%) said that learning and development was the most important factor when choosing an employer. And across all the participants who completed SingleSprout’s survey, professional development ranked third among a range of factors, just after compensation and opportunities for promotion, and ahead of remote flexibility and company industry or mission. 

It shouldn’t be surprising that engineers like to learn – it’s how they’re wired. According to Career Explorer, the top three personality traits for engineers are 1) investigative / inquisitive, 2) artistic / original / self-expressive, and 3) enterprising, all of which relate directly to learning, growth, and creation. 

As the team at Growin put it: 

“Developers are like artists. They need to be inspired and have a sense of purpose or they will leave for more dynamic pastures. They will quit because they feel stifled, a feature of an over-rigid development firm. Most developers thrive in open spaces that allow their creativity to flourish. Allowing time where they’re able to explore these ideas is important for long-term success.”

Engineers need it

In addition to wanting more upskilling and training, engineers truly need it. According to College Cliffs, engineering is one of the professions that requires the most continuing education over the course of a career, and it’s easy to see why. As technology evolves, new opportunities emerge almost daily, and existing knowledge quickly becomes outdated. Consider the rapid growth of Python and SQL as dominant coding languages, the creation of the DevOps approach to tech management in the early 2000s, or the recent explosion of AI careers, and you can immediately grasp how quickly developers need to develop new skills to stay relevant and competitive.

It’s good for businesses, too

Investing in learning and development is known to contribute to higher rates of business innovation, and this is especially important when investing in engineers. According to Growin,  developers that are up-to-date on the latest industry trends are key strategic assets for identifying new market opportunities and quickly adapting systems when leaders decide on new technological approaches. If you want a nimble workforce, you better make sure your development teams have the resources they need to stay current and engaged.


Photo by ThisisEngineering RAEng

How to design a winning professional development program for engineers

So how can you design a purpose-built training and development program that your engineers will love?

Make it flexible

In today’s hybrid work environment, flexibility in learning is key. Your engineers must be able to learn how they want, when they want. Make sure you offer asynchronous, on-demand programs that engineers can complete on their own schedule and timeline. Provide year-round access and ensure that you can truly deliver on the promise of life-long learning over the course of their careers.

Offer lots of options

We all love options, and this is especially important when you have a sizable engineering team with individuals who may have different goals and interests. Try to offer a variety of learning resources that balance low vs. high intensity, hard vs. soft skills, and skill acquisition vs. industry knowledge and trends. These should include courses, news and magazine subscriptions, videos, podcasts, hackathons and mentorship opportunities — all are uniquely valuable.

Provide complete control

Developers are independent free-thinkers, and they generally don’t like being told what to do – they prefer to figure out things for themselves. This is actually beneficial, because the act of choosing an upskilling program can be a valuable part of the learning process. We recommend offering professional development stipends, which essentially provide engineers with a predefined sum of cash (e.g., $1,500 or $2,500) to spend on whatever type of program they choose, once approved. Stipends offer developers control and the perception of real value, plus a gamified experience of spending “Monopoly money” from the company on their own learning.

Show them the data

News flash: developers like numbers and data! And they love a little healthy competition. Make it easy for them to see the stats on what they’ve done and how it compares to other professionals at the company. When engineers can see the progress they’ve made with real data, they’ll be motivated to keep learning and achieving.

Make it collaborative and fun

Developers are a notoriously collaborative bunch. They created the world’s first online forums, and they remain the heart and soul of some of the internet’s most popular communities. Make it easy for developers at your company to see what their peers are doing and recommend great resources to each other. Use leaderboards, shout-outs, and prizes to gamify the experience and add a little levity – a few memes and gifs never heart anyone!

Make it a priority

You could put all the right upskilling programs in place and still not have the impact you want if competing priorities and other barriers get in the way of participation. Try to carve out dedicated time for professional development, for example by ending two-week sprint cycles on Thursdays and allocating Fridays just for admin and learning. Include training as part of growth plans by adding learning goals to annual performance reviews and designing career pathways with recommended courses and programs. Work with trusted partners to develop meaningful programs for your teams, including HR and L&D leaders, as well external vendors.

By creating an intentional learning and development program designed with your engineers’ needs and interests in mind, you’ll be helping your company to not just recruit top talent, but ensure that they stick around for years to come.

For more information on recruiting and retaining engineering talent, visit our friends at SingleSprout.