Using Workforce Education to Attract and Keep Retail Employees in Today’s Labor Crisis
The American economic recovery is here. Markets are surging, businesses are eager to hire, and employees are leaving or switching jobs at such a high rate that economists have dubbed the phenomenon the "Great Resignation." With these three forces converging, the workforce challenges for employers in the retail space are real and pressing. Addressing them centers around answering the question: How can you become a talent destination in an authentic way?
One answer is education. Strategically implemented, a workforce education program can become an extension of your overarching business strategy. Investing in the skills employees need to deliver on customer expectations and keep your business competitive can become a virtuous circle with benefits like supporting your workforce planning, opening opportunities for your employees, and creating social impact for your employees and the broader community.
Workforce education can have a dramatic effect on talent attraction and retention in particular, while upskilling employees in specialties like cyber and digital that are becoming increasingly mainstream in the retail sector as many businesses pivot to a digital, omnichannel approach.
To see the impact of education in action, look no further than Starbucks. To remove the hurdle of rising tuition costs that blocked the path of partners (i.e., employees) working toward their goal of a earning a college degree, Starbucks launched the Starbucks College Achievement Plan (SCAP). In partnership with Arizona State University (ASU), the program offers an opportunity for all U.S. partners to earn their first-time bachelor’s degree with 100 percent tuition coverage. More than 19,000 partners are currently working toward their degree, and over 6,500 have completed their degree since the program’s inception in 2014. The program continues to attract partners to work for Starbucks as well, with 20 percent of candidates who apply to Starbucks noting SCAP is the driving reason. Impressive outcomes such as these speak to the impact that employer-funded education has for both short- and long-term success.
While there are clearly positives about other methods of investing in your people through increased compensation, the impact can be transient as with a lot of financially based incentives — whereas investing in educational impact can be meaningful and transformative.
The Impacts of Workforce Education and U.S. Companies Leading the Way
The concept behind employer-funded workforce education programs is powerfully simple: empower employees with new skills for the benefit of both the employee and the business. In retail, workforce education can move the needle on four key imperatives:
- Building a frontline that drives revenue growth and customer loyalty. Thirty-four percent of U.S. retail employees don’t feel engaged on the job, and this comes at a high cost: 80 percent of U.S. consumers say that speed, convenience and friendly service are the most important elements of positive customer experiences, which are known to drive in-store conversion rates by as much as twofold or threefold.
- Developing and retaining a skilled pipeline of frontline leadership. Eighty percent of retail managers believe that high employee turnover and understaffed stores make it difficult to achieve business goals, yet 38 percent of frontline retail workers don’t receive any formal training.
- Developing a pipeline for other essential roles. We’re in a period of significant change, and 90 percent of industry growth in the next five years will be captured by companies that successfully engage directly with consumers. To do that, companies must get their digital transformation and supply chain talent right.
- Making a tangible investment in diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) that has community and intergenerational impact. As corporations seek to advance DEI efforts and show quantifiable results, workforce education is an effective way to equip workers with the skills they need to rise through the ranks while avoiding onerous student loan debt.
More and more companies are catching on and investing in education to make progress on these priorities. Here are a few examples:
- Aramark, a leader in food, facilities management and uniforms, created its Aramark Frontline Education Program to provide full tuition coverage of college degrees for hourly associates across the U.S.; so far, it has received more than 1,300 enrollments.
- Levi Strauss & Co. created a boot camp that teaches statistics, coding and machine learning skills.
- Verizon plans to retain 100,000 retail employees with technical know-how for its 5G rollout.
Steps to Effectively Implement Your Workforce Education Program
When it comes to launching and cultivating a successful workforce education program, being strategic is key. Here are a few things to keep in mind as you get started.
Step 1: Tie your business need to an education strategy.
For the most impact, you want to think bigger than your HR department and design a program that aligns with your company’s overall strategic objectives. That requires identifying and understanding the unique challenges facing your organization — whether you’re looking to achieve business growth, improve agility, boost retention and engagement, address an industrywide talent shortage, level up your DEI efforts, or fuel an ambitious strategic plan — and collaborating with experts and stakeholders to develop a curriculum tailored to your vision.
Step 2: Demonstrate the value to learners.
Pursuing higher education as an adult can be intimidating and requires commitment, so businesses need to show job candidates and employees that their investment will yield tangible results, in the form of a new assignment, a promotion, a raise, or another desirable outcome.
Step 3: Invest in partnerships that simplify the learning experience.
Your people are already busy with work and their personal lives, so partner with an education provider that's prepared and proficient at meeting the unique needs of working adult learners. Making education available doesn’t go far enough — you must build support systems around it.
Step 4: Measure impact and adjust accordingly.
A great workforce education program should evolve over time, and so you'll want to create clearly defined metrics for success and gather data — through employee surveys and other internal mechanisms — on an ongoing basis. This data will help you track the effectiveness of the program against your goals as well as pinpoint and execute against areas you want to adjust.
The Bottom Line
Driving retention at both the entry level and the pipeline of workers is uniquely important in the retail sector, and too many retailers are at risk of losing business because they don’t have the resources for growth. Embracing workforce education now — in a thoughtful way that maps to your strategic objectives — can have an exponential impact in helping you navigate the challenges presented by the economic recovery and become a beacon for motivated talent.
As chief customer officer of InStride, Sean Flynn leads the strategy and execution of InStride’s corporate partnerships and go-to-market operations.
Related story: Reframing 'The Great Resignation' as an Opportunity for Great Reflection
Sean Flynn is an accomplished sales leader with more than 20 years of experience at venture-backed startups, global technology companies and in public service. As Chief Customer Officer of InStride, Sean leads the strategy and execution of InStride’s corporate partnerships and go-to-market operations.