There is a tendency to think about career development in a linear way. In other words, we typically imagine going up the ladder more often than we imagine developing parallel skills at various stages of development. Role extension and skills escalation, especially when adopted for entry-level workers, hold the potential to radically transform how people think about their jobs, their professional possibilities and future prospects with a current employer. For organizations, these approaches hold the potential to help better harness the knowledge and skills of their current workforce, to enhance cooperation among workers and managers, and to increase employee retention.
Defining Role Extension and Skills Escalation
Role extension typical refers to the augmentation of a worker’s role within an organization. In short, it refers to a worker’s ability to take on multiple roles either within their current unit or within the larger organizational framework. For this reason, role extension has been recognized as an effective way to promote a more flexible, resourceful and motivated workforce. While sometimes precipitated by a crisis (e.g., an increased demand and/or a shortest of available workers), role extension is consistently associated with long-term benefits. Skills escalation, a related concept, typically refers to the practice of intensifying a worker’s knowledge or skill set and often doing so in a much shorter period of time (e.g., training a worker to carry out more difficult and complex roles within an organization at the entry level). For this reason, skills escalation has also been recognized as a way to create a stronger, more knowledgeable and well-prepared workforce.
Role Extension and Skills Escalation in Context
Farah Mehti started her first full-time nursing position shortly after completing her nursing training and becoming a Registered Nurse. She completed some neonatal ward rotations as a student nurse, and upon assignment to a local hospital, she requested a post in neonatal. Based on her successful training, she was given a neonatal assignment, but like most new neonatal nurses, she was restricted to working with Class I cases. In neonatal care, infants are classified as Class I, II or III, with different nurses taking charge of different classes of infants. Class I infants are generally problem-free and can be left with nurses with limited levels of knowledge and experience. Class II infants may require some specialized care. Class III infants are typically placed in neonatal intensive care units and require the care of nurses with advanced training and experience in neonatal care.
In the past, younger nurses, like Farah, were often placed with Class I infants and remained with them for years, unless they took it upon themselves to advance their own skills through outside education. Farah’s hospital decided to take a new approach. Over the years, senior nurses and hospital administrators had observed that young and energetic nurses, who are eager to acquire new skills and put them into practice, are often unable to find time to advance their education and training. After all, nurses do shift work and working night courses into a shift work schedule can be challenging. It can be even more challenging for young nurses who are still adjusting the toil of the shift-work lifestyle. To capitalize on younger nurses’ desire to learn while recognizing the challenges of returning to school, the hospital took steps to both extend new nurses’ roles and to escalate their skills on the job. For Farah, this meant partially rotating out of Class I neonatal care after just six months on the job and working closely with senior nurses overseeing the care of Class II infants. Expanding her role in the hospital, quickly escalated Farah’s skills, enabling her to respond to crises with Class II infants under appropriate supervision. As a result of the initiative, Farah ended up working in both units within a year, and within two years had acquired the skills and knowledge needed to start working, with supervision, on the neonatal intensive care floor.
In the above example, the combined turn to role extension and skills escalation in the workplace benefited the worker by enabling her to achieve her employment goal more quickly without taking time away from work. At the same time, the employer gained by creating the conditions under which they retained an eager young employee while simultaneously extending her role in the organization.