Winning the Talent War with Learning and Development Strategies for Recruiting and Retaining Talent

There is a war going on, but it does not involve weapons, military tactics or geographical boundaries. It is a war for talent. Public and private organizations from all across the globe are scrambling to recruit individuals who possess the knowledge, skills and abilities needed for key positions.

The present challenge to obtain talent will persist into a rapidly changing future. Human resources professionals must rise to this challenge with a sense of urgency if they are to help their organizations equip themselves with a workforce that has the capabilities and capacities to meet business demands.

Several factors have led to the war for talent and ensuing need to develop recruiting strategies. The global workforce is aging, as reports such as those published by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics indicate. In one such report, the share of workers aged 55-64 in the United States was expected to increase by 38.6 percent through 2024, while the share of workers aged 65-74 was projected to increase by 83.4 percent. Other factors include low employee engagement, the mobility and diversity of jobseekers, skill shortages for key roles and anticipated high turnover among millennial employees. Responding to all of these factors requires developing and implementing clear and aggressive strategies to recruit talent.

Winning battles in the war for talent creates new challenges related to keeping high performers past onboarding and training. Willis Towers Watson reported that more than one-half of all organizations across the globe have difficulty retaining the most-essential and highly skilled employees. Illuminating why, research summarized by indicates that one-third of new hires quit after six months on the job, one-third of new employees know within their first week whether they will stay with the organization and 35 percent of employees start looking for a new job when they do not receive a raise by the end of their first year. 

Many strategies focused on recruiting and retention have been proposed, and several are proving successful. Experience shows that it is worth dedicating personnel to recruiting candidates for mission-critical roles, establishing clearly defined career paths and implementing flexible workplace arrangements. Other proven strategies include designing a robust onboarding program and conducting climate, engagement and stay interviews.

Employee development programs have also been shown to increase retention. This, however, is often seen as mere training and not given the attention it demands. Effective employee development that improves retention is driven by organizational leaders to move beyond check-the-box training and toward alignment with organizational goals.

A CPS HR Consulting report indicated that training and development ranked highest among demands from the new workforce, beating out cash bonuses, more vacation and free health care. It seems that what employees want is for their organization to invest in their growth and development as professionals. The remainder of this article details how the State of Tennessee Department of Human Resources (DHR) made such an investment by implementing an employee development strategy focused on recruiting and retaining government workers.

Tennessee faces many of the challenges to obtaining top talent mentioned above. Though the percentage of baby boomers in the state government workforce is beginning to decrease, older employees still make up a significant part of the workforce. More critical than mere numbers is the institutional knowledge that could be lost as boomers retire. In 2017, some 30 percent of the roughly 42,000 Tennessee state government workers are eligible to retire because of their age.

While the recruiting of millennials has increased, retention of that age group has proven challenging. Many new hires leave state employment within the first year. Considering that achieving proficiency to perform many state government jobs requires 6-12 months, and that technical training saddles agencies with significant expenses, such rapid turnover has large negative financial impacts.

Work culture also had to be addressed. Certain civil service practices instituted with the intent to benefit employees evolved into entitlements while fixing antiquated business processes and leading to inconsistent investment in workers’ growth and development.

In April 2012, the Tennessee Excellence, Accountability and Management Act was signed into law. The civil service reform revamped employment practices, making “Recruit, Retain and Reward” the formula for helping Tennessee state government become an employer of choice. Leadership development emerged as a focal point, but the challenge was how to create a learning environment within state government.

A multipronged strategy was pursued. First, programs were designed and implemented to prepare employees to assume vacated leadership roles because an impending leadership vacuum had to be filled. This resulted in services for often-neglected middle managers. Whereas previously, many employees were promoted to managerial positions due to their technical skills, they were rarely provided opportunities to gain the knowledge and interpersonal skills necessary to be successful leaders of people.

The DHR began tackling these concerns by establishing programs that would be sustainable across changes in administration. The five-step process involved diagnosing an expressed need as being mission-critical, demonstrating the urgency of the need, building a support structure throughout the enterprise, developing the necessary programs and evaluating the programs to collect and analyze data for continuous improvement.

To accelerate the investment in employees’ development and growth, several leadership programs were implemented:

  • LEAD Tennessee, an internationally recognized and award-winning leadership development initiative, takes approximately 130 current and emerging leaders through a 12-month competency-based program, imparting the knowledge and skills required to assume key vacated roles.

  • The Tennessee Government Executive Institute and the Tennessee Government Management Institute, which were developed in partnership with the University of Tennessee Institute for Public Service, were revised to include a focus on relevant competencies.

  • The Accelerated Leadership Institute was implemented to invest in those who showed high potential as leaders but had not yet had leadership experience.

  • A program prepares state government HR professionals to move away from being solely transactional in how they serve their departments and start to act as strategic partners.

The DHR manages the various competencies taught in each program to create a unique learning experience for participants.

At launch, the leadership development programs could accommodate only about 250 total participants a year. This would not have the overall impact needed for an organization with more than 41,000 employees. Therefore, the DHR consulted with agency executive leaders and created leadership academies customized to meet the leadership needs of each agency. Taking this approach encourages adoption of a grow your own philosophy when it comes to preparing future managers.

To further address the professional development needs of middle managers, the DHR designed and implemented a four-level certificate program dubbed the Management and Leadership Learning Pyramid. Starting with a focus on the knowledge and skills every manager in state government needs, the pyramid builds through workshops in which participants gain increasingly higher levels of leadership competency. The intents of certification are to equip the state’s 7,000-plus managers with a baseline of fundamental management skills and to instill a shared understanding of what leading others entails across the enterprise.

The war for top talent will continue into the foreseeable future, requiring organizations to develop strategies that address recruiting, retaining and rewarding employees who themselves are focused on investing in the development and growth of the workforce in order to meet organizational goals. With participation in its leadership and certification programs increasing each year, and a culture of continuous improvement as a learning organization emerging, the State of Tennessee believes it is succeeding in investing in the development and growth of employees. The goals are to attract top talent, increase retention rates, produce a high-performing workforce and gain a reputation that the state is an employer of choice among the next generation of employees.

Trish Holliday, Ed.D., SPHR, SHRM-SCP, is the assistant commissioner and chief learning officer for the State of Tennessee Department of Human Resources. While providing overall curriculum focus for and developing all statewide leadership programs, Holliday creates and leads learning efforts aimed at achieving the mission and goals of a customer-focused government and building a common culture of business and leadership skills. You can reach her at

E.C. “Ernie” Ricketts, Ph.D., SPHR, SHRM-SCP, is the talent management administrator for Tennessee’s human resources department. Ricketts collaborates closely with Holliday to assist agency leaders in implementing talent management strategies that align with the governor’s initiatives and support the state’s workforce planning efforts. You can reach him at

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