New research reveals that employees today are willing to go to even more drastic lengths to find the best career fit for them. According to the 2023 Career Optimism Index® study—an annual survey of 5,000 employees and 500 employers across America conducted by the University of Phoenix Career Institute®—30% of Americans would quit their job today without having another lined up and 46% would leave if their current employer offered them a severance package of 3-months pay.

This is great news for employers looking to recruit top talent. However, employers should know employees are seeking more – they want real support in their professional development and are eager to be challenged. Many employers are not meeting this desire for growth, leading to a “free agent labor market” where employees feel empowered to leave their current positions in search of something better. Employers have been challenged to offer more benefits than ever before – but empty workplace perks like free snacks and Happy Hours aren’t cutting it when it comes to attracting employees seeking a long-term fit.

Employees are facing fundamental holes in their connections with work; sentiments of dissatisfaction, stagnation, and a lack of fulfillment are prevalent. To turn the tide, employers must be more intentional in their approaches to integrating and communicating career development opportunities and support. If employers can tap into the workforce’s desire for growth and spotlight meaningful pathways to advancement available internally, they have a real shot at attracting the market’s “free agents.”

Specifically, here are three critical areas where job seekers are looking for their future employers to act.

Investment in Employee Skilling

According to the Career Optimism Index, most employers (46%) cite a lack of well-qualified applicants as the greatest challenge their organization faced when finding talent. Simultaneously, 70% of American workers say if their company gave them more opportunities to apply new skills, they would be more likely to stay throughout their career. This points to an immense mutual benefit to be had through investment in continuous learning opportunities.

By tapping into workers’ desire to be challenged, learn new skills, and take on new roles, employers can create opportunities to fulfill talent needs. Additionally, in providing ongoing, flexible, formal and informal skilling programs, employers foster the development of more knowledgeable, agile talent pipelines. Concurrently, they increase employee investment in their organization by paving clear paths for career growth; when employees can envision their future at a company and know the precise steps they need to take to get there, they are more likely to stay long-term. This is why any existing work in this space or intended further expansions of offerings should be highlighted within job listings and throughout a candidate’s interview process. Potential employees want their professional development to be expressed as a priority before they even reach day one.

Making Mentorship Mandatory

The proliferation of remote and hybrid work brought new productivity and flexibility benefits to the workforce, but a lack of in-person connection has posed real threats to professional development opportunities – particularly mentorship.

Mentorship is necessary for ensuring employees are aware of career paths available within an organization and that they have the one-on-one support needed to get there. Mentors provide valuable guidance in terms of setting goals, career mapping, networking within a company to gain new perspectives and are a great sound-boarding for ideas.

Critically, the Career Optimism Index finds that 56% of American workers say they do not have a mentor, and 42% of Americans say they do not even have an advocate at work. This lack of support does not go unnoticed by employees, and unfortunately, a third of Americans say lack of mentorship/advocacy/support from a professional network has held them back in their careers (34%). Importantly, American workers with mentors are more likely to say they feel confident (93% vs. 86%), fulfilled (89% vs. 75%), and enthusiastic (90% vs 77%) about their career or job than those without a mentor.

When these sentiments are fostered in the workplace, employee interest and engagement is bound to increase. Employers must take action to meet the workforce’s drive for connection and career pathing through formal mentorship programming, which can include activities like speed-dating to connect mentees and mentors, internal lunch and learns and collaborative goal-setting sessions. Explaining such offerings during the recruitment process is critical to job seekers’ understanding of how they will be individually supported once they join an organization.

Nurturing Workplace Wellness

Employees are experiencing burnout and stress at all-time highs. Employee engagement is decreasing while mental health challenges mount – existing employer tactics to curb these barriers are not cutting it. Per the Career Optimism Index, 47% of workers are experiencing burnout at work, and 50% of those experiencing burnout say it has gotten worse in the past year. Job seekers desire future workplaces that are actively working to buck this trend.

With 39% of Americans looking for mental health resources to help manage their work-related stress, it’s essential for employers to showcase how they nurture employee wellness for the whole employee, reinforcing the importance of mental health and workplace wellness hand-in-hand with offering concrete mental health and wellness-related benefits.

Companies need to embrace top-down communication to ensure the prioritization of mental health is baked into company culture, ensuring benefits and options for additional support are known and embraced, empowering employees to voice their wellness needs and find appropriate solutions. In turn, interviewees should be able to see how these values proliferate a company throughout their recruitment process, whether it be through explicit benefits included in the job listing or in context of interview conversations. This is important because when workers feel seen for their whole selves, they are more likely to envision a long-term fit and leave their “free agency” days behind them.

John Woods

John Woods is currently Chief Academic Officer and Provost at University of Phoenix. Prior, he was Executive Vice President and Chief Academic Officer of Education Corporation in America for three years. Woods has been Chief Academic Officer of the Career Schools at Career Education Corporation, Associate Provost of International Operations at Harrison College, and Vice President of Academic Affairs at Rasmussen College for eight years. He was also Dean of Ohio Dominican University in 2001.