Investment in Sustainable Employability

Thirza Koster Article

It was about 4-5 years ago that human resource managers at Dutch-based DSM started to wonder just how “fit” their employees really were.

The company – a global leader in the fields of advanced plastics, health and nutrition – was concerned that its current efforts to promote overall career, mental and physical fitness were not as effective as they could be.

As a response, DSM decided to launch a new “sustainable employability” program to increase the overall awareness of their Dutch employee base about the role they have themselves regarding their employability.

In the Netherlands, the term sustainable employability is used to describe an initiative that combines elements of what North American employers would know as engagement, career development, talent management, wellness and career transition. The goal is to ensure that employees are not only healthy, engaged and productive, but also prepared to adjust to future disruptions that may require them to take on entirely new roles within the company, or perhaps leave to find a new job.

“We want to give people instruments to gain insight into their careers, get them thinking about what motivates them,” said Jeroen Kluytmans, DSM’s manager of employability. “We want them to ask questions: are my talents still usable? Do I want to do the same job in five or 10 years? Is my job even going to be here in five or 10 years?”

To deal with all these issues, the company created DSM Fit, a multi-pronged initiative designed to help employees get the most out of their jobs while also ensuring that they are prepared in the event they have to move on and look for work elsewhere.

Kluytmans said DSM Fit has three main elements:

  • Occupational health, including mental and physical wellness;
  • Employability, which helps employees interested in education or skills upgrading to change their current job or pursuing other opportunities within the company; 
  • Mobility, for those employees who have become redundant and need help moving on to a new job. 

As part of the new initiative, new employees undergo an on-boarding assessment to create a baseline measurement of each individual against the three core sustainable employability elements, he said. They are also given information about the programs available to them through DSM Fit.

On the back end, exit interviews now include questions on whether DSM Fit improved the life of individual employees during their tenure with the company.

“What we are really trying to create is a conversation with our employees about re-orienting their career,” Kluytmans said. “We want them to learn about sustainable employability, and start thinking, ‘what does it mean for me?’”

Although somewhat of a new term for North American employers, sustainable employability is a very familiar concept among many Dutch companies that want to improve overall employee health and productivity. A big component of sustainable employability is ensuring employees have the skills, education and experience to take on new roles and tasks as the company sheds old job classifications and develops new ones.

To better understand sustainable employability as a growing trend, and to gauge its ROI, in the summer of 2016 Lee Hecht Harrison studied nine of our Dutch customers, companies of various sizes and industries, including DSM. All of the companies had a global profile and together, represented a base of more than 12,000 employees.

The study showed that while all companies employed some elements of sustainable employability, only two scored highly in multiple elements of a holistic program. Not surprisingly, those two companies also demonstrated greatest overall profitability and market growth among the organizations studied.

The results are not surprising. Advocates of the elements of sustainable employability – engagement, career development, and wellness – have for many years been connecting them to greater operational performance and bottom line results.

The companies that are deeply committed to sustainable employability are demonstrating clearly that in isolation, engagement, career development and wellness are not as effective as they are in a combined, focused program to make employees happier, healthier and better prepared for future career disruptions.

It was a revelation of this exact nature that motivated DSM to undertake its sustainable employability initiative.

Kluytmans said that prior to launching DSM Fit, the company’s sustainable employability effort was focused mainly on a voucher program that provided every employee with a sum of money to purchase courses to upgrade skills or education. This was seen as a primary tool in boosting engagement and retention, and preparing employees to adapt to disruptions in their careers.

However, said Kluytmans, there were concerns the program was not entirely effective. The voucher program was expensive and the results were ambiguous. A bigger concern was that because the employees were purchasing their courses from third parties, they were not having sustainable employability discussions with their managers. “We found that people were just not connected to the idea of sustainable employability through this program,” Kluytmans said.

In the wake of that initiative, Kluytmans said he canvassed widely in the company to find out what it was that employees really wanted to improve their overall outlook about work and their future prospects. He also looked closely at what individual units within the company were doing to promote the idea of sustainable employability.

Kluytmans said the company developed a number of tools to help evaluate their current career state based on three core priorities: vitality (health), motivation (engagement), and productivity. The first tool is a basic sustainable employability test that gives people frank feedback on where they stand on each of those three core elements.

“It’s a very short test they do online and the results are provided immediately,” he said. “They can see their scores in each of the three areas and where there needs to be improvement. If you score low in any area, you get immediate feedback on the options you have for improvement."

DSM made other self-assessment tools available, including the “Roadmap Game,” an interactive program that can be done in groups to identify your stage of career. In the game, users answer questions like “What did you want to be when you were a kid, and what did you want to do when you were grown up?” The answers and group discussion help employees focus on areas where they can improve, and motivate them to pursue career goals they may have abandoned long ago, he added.

Then, they can go back to DSM Fit, and take advantage of one of a series of core resources, he said.

The program has proved highly successful in two major ways, he said.

First, it is much more cost-efficient than the previous voucher system, said Kluytmans. With DSM Fit, education resources are allocated only when requested, as opposed to the previous voucher system where education money was budgeted every year for each and every employee. This way, resources are focused on those employees motivated to undertake the training, he said.

It has also proven to be highly popular, Kluytmans said. Nearly 600 of the 4,200 employees at DSM’s Netherlands head office used DSM Fit programs in its first year, an uptake rate that is way above industry averages, he added.

The program will grow in its second year to include specific training with managers on how to engage their employees in conversations about sustainable employability.

“We want the managers to think about incorporating sustainable employability in their day-to-day interactions,” said Kluytmans. “First we empower the employee, and then we empower the manager.”

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