Exploring Middle-Skill Training Programs For Employment In The Retail Industry

The size and growth of US retail industry and the number of employment opportunities for low-skilled workers led the US education and social policy research organization MDRC, with support from the Walmart Foundation, to conduct a national survey analyzing the activity of non-profit workforce training providers preparing low-skilled youth and adults for middle-skill jobs in retail. MDRC’s summary report on the survey findings explores the potential of the retail sector as an entry to middle-skill and middle-income jobs for low skilled workers.

The survey revealed that while the number of nonprofit workforce training providers preparing job seekers for middle-skill positions is increasing in the US, most focus on low-wage, entry-level positions programs and do not align with the employer’s need for middle-skilled workers. The researchers found that few nonprofit workforce-training programs that are preparing low-skilled workers for careers in retail focus on middle-skill jobs. It would appear that community-based nonprofit organizations are hesitant to use scarce resources to explore expanding training for middle-skill jobs in the industry.

Why Are There So Few Training Programs For Middle-Skill Employment In The Retail Industry?

Survey respondents revealed a number of issues about the retail industry that make it difficult for nonprofit workforce training organizations to develop training for it. These factors include:

Industry structure. In the retail industry, job opportunities narrow significantly above the entry level and this structure does not promote career advancement for low-skilled workers. Without clear pathways for retail workers to attain better employment, service providers targeting the retail industry find it challenging to operate programs at sufficient scale.

Employer practices. Retail firms that promote internally often train in-house rather than rely on external providers. Managers frequently select individuals who perform well in entry-level jobs to take on more responsibility and opportunities for skill development. Also, retail firms often look to college graduates to fill management positions.

Nonprofit workforce training provider perceptions and capacities. The limited opportunities for career advancement in entry-level retail positions deter many training providers from identifying higher-wage opportunities in the industry. Lean staffing in the retail industry makes it difficult for providers to find employer partners who will collaborate on the design of well-targeted programs.

Constraints facing low-income job seekers. Low-skill job seekers perceive retail jobs to be less desirable and have limited understanding of career options within the industry. The researchers also found that job seekers cannot afford the time or the cost of enrolling in long-term credential programs. These challenges make it difficult for providers to commit to developing long-term training programs for the retail sector.

What Opportunities Exist For Increasing the Supply Of Quality Community-Based Training Programs For Jobs In Retail?

The authors note that there is an opportunity for retailers and workforce training providers to create new programs that focus on middle-skill job opportunities in the industry. In the survey, nonprofit training providers and retail hiring managers highlighted several strategies for developing partnerships to develop these programs

  • Providers would welcome more detailed information about job opportunities in high-growth occupations and robust career paths in retail;
  • Strengthening regular communication between retail employers and training providers could reduce misunderstanding between them;
  • Testing new ways of expanding training for high demand, middle-skill retail jobs through partnerships; and
  • Conducting successful trials of training programs that encourage providers to commit more resources to mid-level skill training.

This report is aimed at practitioners and employers who wish to explore developing partnerships and new opportunities for training for middle-skill jobs in the retail industry. Although it is examining the US retail sector, lessons learned from this study are applicable to BC providers and employers who are encountering similar barriers to connecting job seekers to middle-skill positions in retail.