"Tracey’s Takeaways" is a regular feature that focuses on employee development, management issues, leadership and organizational culture.

When we hear "brain drain," we often think of young adults leaving rural America for urban areas. But did you know that approximately 6,400 employees leave the cooperative network annually due to retirement (about 2,400) or regular attrition (about 4,000)? This means that every year, approximately 8% of the co-op workforce leaves with knowledge that is valuable to their co-op and at risk of being lost.

NRECA anticipates this trend to continue. Put another way, if we look ahead to the next five years, collectively, we will welcome more than 25,000 new co-op employees! This is why it's critical to proactively facilitate the identification and transfer of critical skills and knowledge between co-op colleagues.

Think about your own co-op. Will you experience any of these in the next few years?

  • Expected or unexpected departure of an employee (leaving the co-op or moving to another department).
  • Planned discussions around succession planning, performance management or employee development.
  • Likely attrition (for example, you are seeing more competition in the local job market for the skills you need to hire).

It's easy to think about crossing those bridges when you come to them. But consider this: What is the risk of losing critical skills and knowledge at your co-op? Is it the safety of your employees? The service you provide to your consumer-members? Your culture? To assess your risk, ask two fundamental questions:

  1. What knowledge and skills are at risk of being lost, or don't currently exist?
  2. How critical is this loss or lack of knowledge and skills to our co-op?

Once you have identified where the critical knowledge and skills are sitting at your co-op, it's time to create a plan. Outlining clear goals and specific actions helps ensure success and minimize frustration. Then ask, what can be done to capture, transfer or develop this knowledge or skill? Here are a few ideas:

1. Job reorganization for retiring staff. Providing staff who are planning on retiring with a modified position description that allows them time to mentor new staff.

2. Peer-to-peer and team training. An intentional relationship between two or more co-workers where one is the "teacher" (mentor) and one or more co-workers are the "learners" (mentees). The mentor provides coaching and oversight so that the mentee gains the mentor's view on what is needed to perform or manage a job or task.

3. Co-worker interviews, possibly with turnover checklists and job aids. Interview employees in your key roles to identify and document the critical or unique skills and knowledge required for their positions. After the interview, you could create a turnover checklist and/or visual aids outlining key steps. Then, as part of the employee's transition, have the new employee do a walkthrough with the incumbent before they leave so you can identify any gaps in the new employee's knowledge or needed clarification.

However you decide to approach your knowledge capture and transfer efforts, making this a co-op-wide initiative can prevent individuals from feeling they are being spotlighted and put at risk for being let go after they have shared their valuable knowledge. We hope you find these tips helpful to mitigate the risk of brain drain at your co-op!

NOTE: I would like to acknowledge Michelle Rostom, NRECA's outgoing director of workforce development, and Desiree Dunham, NRECA's senior analyst for talent programs, for contributing the bulk of the content for this article.

For further reading on this topic:

Tracey Steiner is NRECA's senior vice president for education and training. Her 25-year career at NRECA has spanned a variety of roles starting in communications and marketing positions then 15 years as an attorney focusing on cooperative governance and public policy issues before moving to Education & Training in 2012.