Sustainable Growth

Reimagining Retail: Workforce Strategies for Cross-Sector Success

May 13, 2016  • Kathleen McLaughlin

According to the National Retail Federation, the retail industry supports one in four American jobs – a total of 42 million. And retail sales person/cashier is now the most common job in America. Because retail employs such a large portion of the American workforce, even small improvements to retail career pathways can expand opportunities for many low- and moderate-income workers, with positive implications for the economy overall.

Retailers can enhance retail workforce mobility by doing three things:

First, retailers can clarify and strengthen career paths in the retail industry. That means transparency on what skills are required for different jobs, explaining how people move from one job to another with increasing responsibility and pay, illustrating what new jobs and paths get created because of innovation and rising customer expectations, and relaying the new skills required. Providing workers with a better sense of the multiple, exciting paths available to them in retail – and having shared perspectives across employers about skill and experience requisites – lays the foundation for accelerating career mobility.

Second, retailers can accelerate advancement in those career paths by investing in workforce training and development, as well as adjusting other aspects of the job (e.g., scheduling practices) to improve retention. Technology combined with better insights into adult learning can help workers develop skills more quickly. As a result, workers can learn while they earn, and earn while they learn. Upskilling not only fosters career mobility, it helps retailers better serve their customers.

Third, retailers can make it easier for workers to transition to adjacent sectors because of the relevant skills they have acquired in retail. In this way, retail can not only provide meaningful careers to millions of workers but has the potential to be an important stepping stone for the American workforce. It’s our job to see that transition through.

Systematically reshaping workforce development across the retail sector as a whole requires individual retailers to strengthen their own practices, as well as collective action across retailers and others in the system – training and education providers, government bodies, nonprofit organizations.

At Walmart, we’re making investments in training, education and wages. We just announced that more than 1.2 million Walmart U.S. and Sam’s Club associates would receive a pay increase under the second phase of our two-year, $2.7 billion investment in workers – one of the largest, single-day private-sector pay increases ever. We are also investing in on-the-job training through our Pathways and Leadership Academy programs, and working to provide more flexible scheduling as well as improved understanding of career paths and current job benefits (401K, GED, quarterly bonuses, Paid Time Off, stock purchase matching, etc.).

In parallel with the changes we are making within Walmart, we have been working with many others to reshape workforce development across the system more broadly. A year ago, Walmart and the Walmart Foundation announced a $100 million, five-year philanthropic investment in our Retail Opportunity Initiative. This initiative includes convening and grants to groundbreaking organizations to clarify career pathways, improve employer practices, and innovate approaches to upskilling and credentialing.

As a very important part of this initiative, the Walmart Foundation recently invested $5.5 million to support the Aspen Institute in exploring retail-specific worker advancement models for current and future retail workers and employers that can be deployed across the country.

Through the work, the Aspen Institute and the Corporation for a Skilled Workforce will lead the Reimagine Retail initiative to develop retail-specific worker advancement strategies that can be adapted for communities across the United States. We’re excited to explore potential strategies like financial counseling, employer interventions, community support, training and coaching. These strategies have the potential to allow retail workers to advance within retail or access career pathways in adjacent sectors.

We are excited about the potential for this collaboration to empower a wide array of organizations across sectors so they can address a fundamental challenge in America – how to better train and advance workers in retail and adjacent sectors. By helping workers build new job skills for a changing economy, we’re hoping to play an important role in strengthening the workforce system beyond Walmart, for retail and adjacent sectors at large.

Kathleen McLaughlin is the Chief Sustainability Officer at Walmart and the President of the Walmart Foundation. Learn more about the Reimagine Retail initiative from this recent event held at the Aspen Institute.

Photo by Flickr user Walmart Corporate used under Creative Commons.


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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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