Workforce Development

I thought retail jobs were a dead-end for economic mobility. I was wrong.

April 13, 2016  • Jeannine La Prad

Key Points

  • Entry-level and mid-level jobs in retail represent opportunities for business to invest in their workers' skill sets.
  • Pairing expanded on-the-job training with benefits like livable wages and healthcare could substantially grow America's middle class.

The Aspen Institute recently formed a partnership with the Walmart Foundation and the Corporation for a Skilled Workforce to improve employee engagement and worker advancement in the retail sector and allied sectors. The project will leverage a research-based approach, exploring strategies that improve job quality and worker advancement through systems change, while sustaining a thriving retail industry.

Below, Corporation for a Skilled Workforce President and CEO Jeannine La Prad explains the unique role the retail sector can play in expanding the middle class.

I have dedicated the past 25 years of my career to creating new and better opportunities to strengthen America’s workforce. I have worked with many of the major sectors: health care, manufacturing, energy, and education to name a few.

The one big sector that has not been a focus for my work is retail. I made the same assumptions about retail jobs that most people do. I saw them as low-skill, low-quality jobs without much room for advancement. I didn’t see the sector as a meaningful pathway to grow America’s middle class.

I was wrong.

Retail employs more people in the US than almost any other sector. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the most common job in America is that of retail salesperson. Even with the rise of online shopping, retail jobs are expected to keep growing over the next decade.

Instead of focusing on what’s wrong with retail, it is time for all of us who care about economic mobility to recognize the unique role retail can play in expanding the middle class. Every single one of the millions of people who work as sales clerks, cashiers, customer service assistants, and stock room workers represents an opportunity. We don’t have to find these people. They are showing up to work each day. Their entry and mid-level jobs don’t have to be dead-ends. Instead, they could be valuable touchpoints, where businesses have a chance to add to the skillset of their employees. In some cases, those workers could be nurtured to move up to higher-paying jobs within the retail sector. In other cases, they could be taught skills that would translate well to high-paying jobs in other related sectors.

Of course, it will take more than skill-building for retail to be the pathway to the middle class that it could be. Employees still need livable wages and basic benefits like health care and paid time off. They need to have the opportunity to work full time if they want it. And working parents especially need predictable schedules. More and more retailers are making changes to address these needs. We can and should build on that momentum.

The best way to make good on the promise of retail jobs is to directly engage retail employers. Businesses have to be partners in designing and implementing new ways to train, promote, and refer entry and mid-level workers. They have to be willing to experiment with better pay, benefits, and hours. And when they adopt solutions, the actions they take will influence their peers in the retail sector.

The good news is that the groundwork is already being laid for a new era of workforce development in retail. This month, the Walmart Foundation, Aspen Institute, and Corporation for a Skilled Workforce announced Reimagine Retail, an ambitious new initiative to improve job quality and increase the economic mobility of entry level retail and service industry workers.

Reimagine Retail, which is just one key part of the Walmart Foundation’s five year, $100 million effort, will focus on developing retail sector-specific, worker advancement and systems change strategies that can be adapted for communities across the United States. The Aspen Institute and Corporation for a Skilled Workforce will work with local businesses and community leaders in five cities to test new and existing ways to give workers clear paths for advancement in retail as well as adjacent sectors.

With the Institute’s leadership, Reimagine Retail will also tap into other relevant initiatives like Upskill America, an employer-led movement focused on improving worker training and advancement practices, the 100,000 Opportunities Initiative, which aims to connect youth to employment in retail and other industries, and Working in America, a series of national conversations about work in the US.

A century ago, when my grandparents were born, working retail meant working in a corner store. By the time my parents were born, those were replaced by big, downtown department stores. When I was growing up, those stores and other retail chains moved to malls in the suburbs, which were later replaced by big-box stores. Today, online shopping is reshaping the landscape of retail in profound ways. Change in retail is not only possible, it is the norm.

It’s worth it for us to work together to drive that change to be something that helps businesses, communities, and families flourish. Because when it comes to giving more Americans a better shot at the middle class, no other industry offers a bigger prize than retail.


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Reimagine Retail is a project of the Aspen Institute Economic Opportunities Program. Learn how EOP is helping low- and moderate-income Americans connect to and thrive in a changing economy. Follow us on social media and join our mailing list to stay up-to-date on publications, blog posts, and other announcements.

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