The Case for Career Path Conversations

New research finds higher job satisfaction among employees with view to more opportunities.

by Ashley Nickle
Career Path concept photo

The greatest challenge facing produce retail and the greatest challenge facing produce are one and the same: finding and keeping people to do the fundamental work that makes the whole operation possible. The common verbal shorthand is “labor,” and perhaps that terminology is part of the problem. In an era in which efficiency is everything, it’s easy to regard employees collectively rather than as unique individuals with their own talents and interests and needs and aspirations. What kind of a difference might it make to approach them in the latter way rather than the former?

To answer that question, I’ll share a story that I first heard in 2021 in Savannah, Ga., at the Southeast Produce Council’s Southern Innovations event. Claudia St. John, president of The Workplace Advisors, described a human resources nightmare: a company with 400% turnover. No doubt exhausted by the effort and expense required to replace its whole team four times a year, the company hired a consultant to visit with every employee. The questions, as St. John recounted them, were relatively straightforward: What do you want from your job? Where would you like to go in your career? Then the consultant talked with each employee about steps to take in that direction. That terrible turnover number fell off a cliff – from 400% to 37%.

In my recent survey of 200 produce managers for the first-ever State of the Produce Manager report, one of the questions I asked was this: Has anyone from your company ever talked with you about your career path? Roughly one-third selected this option: “No – no one’s had any conversations like that with me.” Another third selected the following: “Sort of – I know there might be opportunities, but I don’t have the details.” The smallest contingent (but still roughly one-third) selected this response: “Yes – I know what the opportunities are, when I can expect them and how to prepare for them.”

What struck me as most fascinating was not the split between those answer choices but rather the correlation between the “Yes” and “Sort of” answers and four metrics of job satisfaction also measured in the survey. The produce managers who answered either “Yes” or “Sort of” were more likely to say they enjoyed their work, more likely to recommend their job to a friend, more likely to speak positively about resources, and more likely to plan to stay at their job. We’d need further research to establish causation, of course, but I don’t believe for a moment that we’re looking at a coincidence. 

There are few more meaningful investments you can make in someone than asking about what matters to them, what they enjoy, and where they want to go – and then supporting them in those pursuits. Career path conversations don’t have to be formal, but they do need to be intentional, and they do need to be regular, and there does need to be follow-up. What does it feel like, as an employee, to be poured into this way? I believe it can be downright transformational. You feel seen. You feel valued. You feel like you’re working toward something rather than just working at something.

Particularly for retailers, the survey results show that career conversations — particularly ones that result in clear direction on next steps — are far from universal. In the grocery industry, every edge matters. Sharp operators won’t let this opportunity pass by. 

  • Ashley Nickle is a former trade journalist-turned-consultant, host of The Produce Retail Podcast, and author of the new State of the Produce Manager report.