Chicago: Reimagining Employer Engagement to Drive Practice Change

“At the beginning of our grant we focused on meeting retailers’ hiring needs. Our local workforce development partners weren’t incentivized to go deeper. I realized that our employer engagement approaches needed to change. Our workforce partners needed to have different conversations with retailers, and we had to develop new strategies to support them. Aspen has been a great strategic partner and resource for me, inspiring me to do the work that I’m doing. I also see that the work we’re doing in Chicago will help others around the country to learn.”

— Cyndi Solitro, Chicagoland Workforce Funder Alliance

Reimagine Retail partners from Instituto del Progreso Latino and Pete’s Fresh Market share their work at a convening of the Retail Opportunity Network.

Reimagine Retail partners from Instituto del Progreso Latino and Pete’s Fresh Market share their work at a convening of the Retail Opportunity Network.

In Chicago, Aspen EOP supported the newly formed Reimagine Retail Chicagoland collaborative led by the Chicagoland Workforce Funder Alliance. Reimagine Retail Chicagoland seeks to transform employer engagement practices across 12 workforce development organizations to improve retention and advancement for workers and enhance business performance. Three years ago, partners’ work with retailers mostly consisted of helping job-seekers find employment quickly. The partners worked independently, vying for opportunities to refer candidates to what often ended up being short-term jobs. Today, to benefit workers and businesses in retail and hospitality, the partners have embraced a shared strategy to reduce incumbent worker turnover.

Reimagine Retail offered a forum to test new approaches to business engagement. Aspen EOP provided technical assistance and resources that allowed the collaborative to deepen employer relationships and build a practice of coaching businesses on strategies to improve stability and advancement. In spring 2019, the Walmart Foundation provided additional support for Reimagine Retail Chicagoland to work with the consulting firm FSG to launch an Innovation Lab, which is based on FSG’s national model but tailored to Chicago and its businesses. With eight retail and hospitality employers, the Chicago Innovation Lab is FSG’s first local lab. It is also the first lab to engage staff at workforce development organizations as coaches to the participating employers, leveraging the capacity these providers built as part of the Reimagine Retail learning community.

Reimagine Retail Chicagoland is now documenting and broadly sharing the collaborative’s practice shifts and lessons learned. The Reimagining Employer Engagement toolkit provides workforce development professionals with information and tools to expand their work and demonstrate the value their services bring to employers. A how-to guide is drawn from the work of one local partner, Instituto del Progreso Latino, which tailors National Retail Federation (NRF) credential training to the needs of incumbent workers and specific retail environments. The guide builds on work Aspen EOP profiled: Instituto’s work customizing the NRF curriculum for a Chicagoland grocer. Looking ahead, the collaborative has plans in place to leverage its growing employer network and enhanced organizational capacities to influence workforce practices across Chicagoland’s retail and hospitality sector, including through a second Innovation Lab.


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Reimagine Retail explores ways to enhance job quality and improve mobility for the retail workforce. Reimagine Retail is a project of the Aspen Institute Economic Opportunities Program. Learn how EOP is helping low- and moderate-income Americans and thrive in a changing economy. Join our mailing list and follow us on social media to learn about events, publications, blog posts, and more.

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