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Is the career ladder still relevant? [Advantages, limitations, and applications]


The current HR landscape suggests that “career ladders” are obsolete. 

A career ladder is perceived by many to be an outdated phrase that’s associated with the negative side of career progression – rigid leadership structures, inaccessible paths, and competitive employees fighting for one coveted role.

That’s one side of the career ladder, but it isn’t always the case.

In many industries, formal career ladders are still an important way to organize and measure career progression. They offer a standardized method for people to gain the necessary skills in a logical order, making progression more efficient.

For example, a person gains strong health services management skills in an assistant director role before they progress to director of nursing.

This article discusses the modern relevance of career ladders and which industries they still apply to, using tangible examples. We explain the reasoning behind the career ladder structure so you can decide whether or not it’s relevant for your organization.

What is a career ladder?

The standard career ladder definition is a structured succession of roles within an employee’s career, which gradually increases in pay and responsibilities. 

While there are different types of career ladders, they generally follow a traditional path, such as: sales rep > account executive > sales manager > senior manager. 

Here’s an example career ladder template:

example of a career ladder template

Career ladders became commonplace in mid-century America, where employees were assured continued growth and employment from the start of their careers to retirement. 

But this practice slowed down during the 1980s and 1990s, when many companies downsized their middle management positions, causing employees to be in charge of building and striving for their own career ladders.

It’s a common belief that career ladders are “archaic” or even “dead” at this point in history. There are a couple of main reasons for this thought:

  1. People believe they’re obsolete because many companies don’t support or encourage them as much as they used to

  2. The modern emphasis on skills has led some organizations to prioritize alternative methods of encouraging employee growth, such as through career lattices and career portfolios

Let’s clarify something right now: Career ladders aren’t obsolete.

They may have their limitations in some regards, but they’re still useful at the right time and place. In that vein, let’s take a look at their top advantages.

The advantages of using career ladders to guide career progression

A career ladder is a valuable form of career progression in many industries and roles. 

Here are four of the top reasons why they’re beneficial.

Advantages of career ladders at a glance



They’re a well-known, reliable method

Provide a straightforward path for progression and facilitate direct mentorship from superiors

Some companies have limited opportunities

Give smaller companies a way to offer growth and promotion to top talent

The pressure to attract talent during a skills shortage

Offer direct upskilling opportunities for the majority of the workforce who seek them in a new job

The lack of diversity in higher positions

Encourages all employees to progress into leadership roles, increasing diversity at the next level

They’re a well-known, reliable method

Career ladders offer a clear path to growth and professional development. They’re a tried and true method that many organizations have used to great success over the years.

We, as a society, have a lot of experience with career ladders. Companies typically have pre-established employee growth programs based on linear ladder progression.

This makes a career ladder easier and more affordable to implement, and also helps knowledge sharing.

In a company that uses career ladders, it's likely that an employee's manager or direct supervisor was once in the employee’s current position, so it’s easier for them to help employees grow and understand job responsibilities.

For example, a content strategist who used to be a content writer knows the path from writer to content strategist well, so they’re able to help coach and mentor other content writers with direct knowledge.

For more on this topic, read our guide on succession planning.

Some companies have limited opportunity

Smaller organizations have limited opportunity for growth, so many companies need to offer high-performers linear growth to satisfy and retain them.

It’s well-known that employees expect growth, especially in the modern age. Without it, workers seek new career opportunities. A study by McKinsey found that the biggest factor driving attrition between 2021 and 2022 was a lack of career development and advancement.

But even if atypical lateral growth is attractive, many small companies and startups may not have the broad range of options that large organizations have.

These companies need to offer advancement to valuable employees, and that advancement may have to be linear.

The pressure to attract talent during a skills shortage

Many companies are facing pressure to secure great talent during the Great Reshuffle, and this is the best method for them to do so. 

There are countless shuffling workers seeking new roles in the present day, and organizations need keen strategies to attract them.

A recent study found that nearly half (48%) of American workers would leave their current job for one that offered upskilling opportunities – and every organization wants to be the one these workers switch to.

However, some industries need to use career ladders, such as the healthcare sector, and some companies simply don’t offer anything else. It would take too much time and effort to restructure their professional development programs, so they offer potential candidates what they have.

The lack of diversity in higher positions

Some organizations struggle with placing and maintaining diverse talent in the upper ranks. 

Modern companies want diversity in senior positions, but unfortunately, diversity diminishes at the top of most companies.

A report from the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) shows that there is more diversity in entry-level roles, including White women, women of Color, and men of Color. But this diversity sharply drops as roles advance.

For example, 35% of entry-level employees are White men, and 30% are White women. But in the C-Suite, that number changes to 62% White men and 20% White women.[1]

Corporate pipeline gender and race graphic

How does a career ladder program combat this?

Offering linear career progression ensures that employees in entry-level positions are encouraged to advance into leadership positions. Horizontal growth, like career lattices, enables employees to grow, but they may not end up in a place of leadership.

This also ties into the above point: attracting talent during a skills shortage.

A 2021 study found that 62% of women re-entering the workforce after the pandemic said they plan to find a position that offers advancement. 

Career ladders enable companies to help diverse employees move upward through an organization and reach a place of leadership.

7 relevant career ladder examples (and how they’re implemented)

Career ladders have their advantages in many companies, but there are a handful of industries where they’re preferred or even necessary.

Here are seven relevant career ladder examples broken down by industry.

Career ladder examples: A summary




Linear progression and experience help ensure clinical competency


Career ladders are traditional in the military and help establish order and authority


Structured career paths help employees build technical expertise


Linear progression mitigates legal risk and helps individuals gradually build relevant skills

Civil service

Career ladders help workers build up knowledge of compliance and regulations, but they may choose to move atypically after some time


Standard retail careers offer few roles, therefore career steps are often limited and linear


Career ladders help tradespeople build their skills and prepare for a future of owning their own practice


The healthcare industry still heavily relies on traditional career ladders.

There’s less room for fluidity and atypical career steps when it comes to clinical competency; being flexible here could risk the quality of care, patient outcomes, and team cohesion.

Healthcare generally requires a strict career progression to ensure skill and competency. This usually involves certifications, experience, and training.

Here’s a potential career ladder from an entry-level nursing position to a registered nurse (RN):

  • Pre-nursing assistant

    • Nursing assistant (CNA)

      • Pre-nursing

        • Practical nurse (LPN)

          • Associate degree nurse (RN)

A career ladder in healthcare is beneficial to employers because it ensures higher levels of competency in a delicate industry. But it’s also beneficial to employees because it ensures higher levels of confidence in their work.

Although it must be said that even though a linear path is ideal for the healthcare industry, this doesn’t mean that it can’t be modernized with skills-based practices.

For example, a skills-first organization may choose to hire entry-level workers using skills tests and structured interviews, and then upskill them once they’re a part of the company.

This company can then monitor the employee’s progression using skills tests like the Health Care Aide test.

This employee can then proceed along the career ladder as usual.

A real-life example of this is Sam Hernandez, who joined a job training program to tear through the paper ceiling and enter the healthcare industry.[2]

For more information on this topic, read our article about skills-based hiring in the healthcare sector.


Military career progression is arguably the most traditional career ladder.

Military rank structures are based on performance, training, and leadership potential. Following a structured career ladder maintains order and cohesion, which is necessary for squadrons to function in active service.

Here’s an example career map of an air force officer’s career ladder:

Using a career ladder is essential in bestowing authority and respect to leadership positions in the military. This teaches discipline and obedience in the ranks, which ensures that people are ready for distressing situations and pressure.

Because this is one of the most traditional career ladders, it also means that it would be nearly impossible to rehaul into a new system.

Map of air force officer's career ladder graphic


Engineering career progression needs to be based on technical expertise. Growth in engineering relies on experience with projects of a certain complexity and knowledge of regulations.

An employee without the right progression of skills and competencies may not perform correctly, which could be a risk in engineering.

Here’s a career ladder example for an engineer. This example uses a dual career ladder, which offers linear progression down two different paths: one to managerial duties and one where the employee stays as an individual contributor.

A dual ladder is a great idea when a company wants to adopt modern career progression methods but still needs to maintain a linear path.

The engineering industry relies on career ladders to help junior engineers build new skills to naturally progress to the next stage. 

But you can still weave in modern, skills-focused methods.

For example, you can measure and track a junior engineer’s progress by assessing them with tests like our Mechanical Reasoning test.

This gives you objective, accurate data to determine whether or not they’re ready for the next career steps.


Legal positions have a lot of tricky, delicate requirements that are most easily achieved through linear progression.

It’s crucial to be certain in legal and compliance issues, because even a small, simple legal mistake can cost businesses thousands of dollars in fines. It can also make or break a legal case.

Legal professionals also gain a history of successful cases and client satisfaction when they move along a linear path.

Here’s a simple career ladder template in the legal sector:

  • Summer Associate

    • Paralegal

      • Associate Attorney

        • Senior Attorney

          • Junior Law Firm Partner

            • Senior Law Firm Partner

This career ladder is a great example of how each role benefits from the knowledge of the one before it. Let’s take a look at the progression from paralegal to associate attorney.

Paralegals primarily help research and gather information. Attorneys attend court hearings and provide analysis and advice to clients, which means the knowledge gained as a paralegal is essential and the career progression is logical.

Another reason that the legal industry uses career ladders is its historical position. Legal firms often rely on the strength of their position, so having employees move through career ladders helps keep the firm strong in certain areas of the practice.

Civil service

Civil service is a broad industry with varied sectors, and many of the roles within them rely on career ladders. These ladders ensure all employees have the skills, experience, and training to operate competently and efficiently.

Here’s an example career ladder of a public service role:

  • Clerical Officer

    • Executive Officer

      • Higher Executive Officer

        • Assistant Principal Officer

          • Vice Consul

This progression enables employees to learn about regulations, customs, import and export rules, foreign affairs, and trade compliance before moving on to more senior roles. 

Like the above-mentioned legal career ladder, these regulations and compliance rules are important to learn to mitigate risks.

Although some civil service roles may start as a ladder and then branch out horizontally. 

For example, firefighters may run along a career ladder initially to gain all the right skills and experience, but then choose from a variety of paths, like being an educator, administrator, or driver.


Retail positions generally follow a strictly linear path.

In nearly every retail scenario, the usual career ladder is a structured path:

  • Sales associate

    • Supervisor

      • Store manager

        • Regional manager

          • National manager

            • Head of Operations

A retail career ladder reflects a person’s knowledge of the product or service, recognition for exceeding targets, and wider management skills.

It’s also important to note that retail work has a narrow, structured system, which means that there’s less room for flexibility in how employees progress.

For example, a junior project coordinator can have quite a few options for growth. They might consider a role in project management, account management, or as a creative director.

But a retail sales associate doesn’t have the same wide range of available positions. Most retail companies have only a handful of roles.

This rigidity and limitation in growth is one of the major factors that’s causing countless retail employees to seek new work. For more insights, read our blog on how to keep deskless workers engaged and boost employee retention.


Similar to engineering, various trades careers rely on technical knowledge and experience that’s best gained through a gradual, linear progression.

Progression has to be based on both experience and skills, and career milestones might be marked by certifications that ‘unlock’ new capabilities.

This progression is similar in many trades professions, including electricians, construction workers, and plumbers.

Here’s an example career ladder for an electrician:

  • Apprenticeship

From here, many tradespeople go into owning their own businesses, where linear knowledge is essential. This experience is crucial when managing your own workers because you were once in their position.

The limitations of the career ladder in the modern workplace

A career ladder program is still necessary for many industries, so why do many modern professionals say they’re archaic?

Our society is shifting away from traditional career ladders due to a handful of problematic limitations. Employees crave career growth, but this type of career path doesn’t satisfy every individual.

Modern HR strategies prioritize alternative frameworks for career progression, such as career lattices or career portfolios.

Here are a few scenarios where career ladders limit employees and organizations:

  1. A high-performer insists on staying as an individual contributor but still needs advancement. If the company can’t provide that, the employee makes an exit.

  2. An excellent sales representative is held back via talent hoarding because their manager doesn’t want to lose an excellent salesperson.

  3. An employee wants to diversify their skills and become a multipotentialite, but if they can’t grow via career portfolios or lattices, they can’t gain skills from different departments.

  4. An employee craves growth but doesn’t have the right skills to move to management.

This final point is related to illogical career progression.

Illogical career progression is one of the main reasons that people believe career ladders are obsolete. Some employees may be outstanding in their roles, but their current skills won’t be used in the next position on the ladder.

For example, a sales manager doesn’t necessarily use the exact negotiation skills they gained as a sales representative.

A real-life example of nontraditional employee growth is Reshma Ramachandran, a chief strategy and transformation officer. In a recent post on LinkedIn, Reshma says that her "career jungle gym" has benefitted her over a traditional corporate ladder. 

Here are her main learnings:

  1. Your education does not define your career trajectory

  2. Your first job is only a first step that does not define your entire career

  3. Breaks are inevitable in today's landscape, and a career lattice enables you to take a break (which is preferable over an exit)

  4. It encourages curiosity and ambition, which are key elements in workplace innovation

  5. It promotes consistency over sudden sparks

And increasingly more companies are realizing the benefits of nonstandard career progression. For example, global investment management firm T. Rowe Price prides itself on promoting a culture of career lattices over career ladders.

In fact, many companies rely on career ladders simply because they aren’t prepared to handle employee growth without a “tried and true” method.[3]

We recommend viewing all different types of professional progression as career paths, including ladders. Offering “career paths” keeps your organization’s options open, as well as your employee’s options.

That way, an employee’s career map can be ladders, lattices, or even a combination of the two, such as a path that’s 90% ladder with a few deviations.

Career ladders are one option out of many

Career ladders aren’t obsolete. They’re still relevant and useful to many organizations and industries.

They help structure employees' career steps and ensure they gain the right competencies and experience, especially in sectors with tight regulations and policies.

You can mitigate this risk further by assessing employees with objective skills tests to make sure they’ve gained the right skills along their ladder.

But career ladders are only one option out of many career pathways, including career lattices. For more insights, read our full guide on career pathing.

To browse more than 300 skills tests, check out our test library.


  1. "Developing Employee Career Paths and Ladders". SHRM. Retrieved June 28, 2023. https://www.shrm.org/resourcesandtools/tools-and-samples/toolkits/pages/developingemployeecareerpathsandladders.aspx 

  2. "Samantha Hernandez - Healthcare". Tear the Paper Ceiling. Retrieved June 14, 2023. https://www.tearthepaperceiling.org/stories/samantha-saucedo-hernandez-medical-practice-coordinator 

  3. Claman, Priscilla. (February 14, 2012). "There Is No Career Ladder". Harvard Business Review. Retrieved June 28, 2023. https://hbr.org/2012/02/there-is-no-career-ladder 


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