“Why Workforce Education is Critical to Recession-Proofing Your Retail Business” by Chuck Rubin and Holly Shaskey-Platek via Total Retail

“Why Workforce Education is Critical to Recession-Proofing Your Retail Business” by Chuck Rubin and Holly Shaskey-Platek via Total Retail

Credit: Getty Images by Cecilie_Arcurs

The Great Resignation. The rise of e-commerce. The supply chain squeeze. These are just the latest in a string of challenging issues facing the retail industry, with a possible recession looming on the horizon. Retailers have rebounded from economic downturns before, however, relying on an economic recovery will not be sufficient without a workforce ready to serve customers. Workers are walking away from retail jobs at an unprecedented rate and requiring more than an hourly wage. Incorporating workforce education into your strategy is a proven way to ensure you can attract, retain, upskill and promote the retail workforce you need.

Let’s dive into five insights on why retailers should lean into workforce education to bolster business and build the workforce of the future:

1. Recruit new talent and fill key roles.

Pay and benefits are important, but employees want help with tangible career paths and opportunities for promotions. For example, 20 percent of job applicants to an industry-leading retail company list the organization’s workforce education program as their primary reason for applying. 

That’s why the availability of workforce education is a differentiating factor when comparing prospective employers. It demonstrates a commitment to developing your employees and investing in them as much as they invest in your company. According to a recent Harris Poll, 70 percent of employees say they’re “at least somewhat likely” to leave their current role for a position with a company that invests in employee learning and development.

2. Engage and retain employees craving career growth.

The retail industry is particularly susceptible to high turnover. In 2021, retail turnover reached a five-year high of 69 percent. Employees today seek more than financial compensation when evaluating a potential employer. Surveys show that what employees really want is the opportunity to learn and grow in their jobs.

Workforce education programs have been proven to increase employee engagement, leading to longer tenures with the companies that offer them. In just the first year of offering a workforce education program, employers have seen employee turnover drop from 30 percent to 8 percent annually. 

We know that employees increase their productivity the longer they’re in their position. The one-year milestone is critical for employees to be able to apply their knowledge and learned skills from year one into year two.

Related story: How Retailers Can Compete in a Tight Labor Market

3. Bridge gaps in hard and soft skills.

Retailers have increased their use of technology to reach customers, and the typical customer now interacts with a retailer as much through technology as they do in person. Familiarity with all of this technology is as important for a sales associate as it is for a retailer’s IT team. 

For example, historically, a sales associate would have set responsibilities (e.g., check out a customer’s purchases, assist them in finding a product in-store). Today, retail employees have so much more data available to them that enables them to elevate the customer experience. They need both soft skills, like active listening, time management and communication, as well as hard skills like technology aptitude to maximize in-store software. Point-of-sale systems have become a sophisticated asset that not only checks out customers’ purchases, but can also prompt employees to review a customer’s past shopping behaviors, suggest a related item, or tell them about a new product that’s coming in next month.

Workforce education can address skills gaps in all of these areas, and with the widespread availability of on-demand courses, employees can learn at a time and place that’s convenient for them. That kind of flexibility is critical for employees whose schedule may vary from week to week and season to season. 

4. Build a diverse talent pipeline from within.

The retail sector has one of the most diverse workforces of any industry, but that diversity isn’t well represented at the highest levels. Workforce education programs can help companies grow their own leaders, bringing invaluable front-line experience to all levels of the organization. Studies have shown that more diverse leaders make for more profitable companies

In order to fuel the future talent pipeline and internal promotions, it’s imperative that retailers invest in their people to provide superior customer service, while positively impacting employee retention and personal growth.

5. Increased profitability and social impact.

Workforce education programs are proven to boost your company’s bottom line as well as drive social impact for generations to come. 

While many full-time employees have aspirations to pursue higher education and advance their careers, many lack the financial resources to do so. Traditional tuition reimbursement models require the learner to pay for courses upfront, then wait weeks or even months for a reimbursement. Employee-sponsored workforce education eliminates that obstacle, expanding access to higher education to those who want it — regardless of their financial situation. This upfront investment in the employee is exactly what creates the strong employee-employer relationship that drives higher retention, reduced attrition and significant return on investment.

Forward-thinking leaders also understand how an investment in their people has far-reaching social impact. By establishing workforce education programs, they can create educational opportunities that are accessible to all, making new career and leadership pathways possible for traditionally underrepresented groups, and strengthening companies by creating leaders that accurately reflect their communities.

Workforce education is no longer a nice-to-have. For retailers looking to grow and remain competitive through the global economy’s ups and downs, it’s an absolute necessity. Therefore, continue to invest in your people. Workforce development helps retailers hire, retain and develop talent to deliver stronger business outcomes and drive your organization forward.

Chuck Rubin is the former CEO of The Michaels Companies and currently an InStride advisory board member

Holly Shaskey-Platek is the former executive vice president, chief human resources officer of The Michaels Companies.

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