The Urban Institute Researches Workforce Issues to Improve Career Advancement Opportunities in the Retail Industry
Updated: 2.27.18 Social Responsibility

The Urban Institute Researches Workforce Issues to Improve Career Advancement Opportunities in the Retail Industry

By: Chris Curry

The Crunch: The nonprofit Urban Institute has launched a research project aimed at improving advancement opportunities for frontline retail workers. The study, which is funded by Walmart Giving, will examine the barriers to advancement for entry-level employees and provide guidance on removing them. The Urban Institute also researches other areas of workforce development, which can inform retailers trying to fill skills gaps at a time when the industry is going through rapid, technology-driven change. It is possible that, with better training and advancement opportunities, more young workers may look at retail as a career path instead of a temporary job. Retailers may also benefit from working together to establish training and advancement best practices, an approach already used by healthcare and other industries.

For 50 years, the Urban Institute has conducted independent research on economic and social issues to identify solutions that can bolster opportunities for workers, families, and communities across the country. Now, the Washington, DC-based think tank has turned its attention to improving career opportunities in the retail industry.

An 18-month study will focus on how to create more advancement opportunities for frontline, entry-level retail workers. The study is funded by Walmart Giving, the charitable arm of the corporation.

Shayne Spaulding, a principal research associate with the Urban Institute’s Income and Benefits Policy Center, said the first phase of the study uses information from national government survey data to create a profile of the country’s frontline retail workforce.

“We want to understand who they are, their life situations, and the different challenges they may face,” Shayne said.

Photo of the Urban Institute’s Income and Benefits Policy Center's Shayne Spaulding

Shayne Spaulding, of the Urban Institute’s Income and Benefits Policy Center, spoke to us about the organization’s research.

“Understanding all of that could help facilitate their advancement.”

That understanding may shape diversity advancement initiatives in an industry where upper management does not reflect workforce demographics. The second phase of the study will include interviews with retail employers — and potentially other industries — to identify practices and strategies that support advancement.

Urban Institute studies typically focus on national policy issues such as economic growth and productivity, access to health care, education and training, and the criminal justice system. But the retail research project aligns well with the nonprofit organization’s purpose. In 1968, Lyndon B. Johnson established the Urban Institute as part of his War on Poverty to look for ways to alleviate unrest in cities across the country. Fifty years later, frontline and entry-level retail workers too often find themselves without the income or the advancement opportunities to break out of the poverty cycle.

In addition to the study, Shayne says prior Urban Institute research on workforce development and advancement identified solutions that may also apply to the retail industry.

Answering the Questions Around What Makes a Viable Career

Over the last several years, technology has transformed the retail sector making inventory and checkout increasingly automated. Retailers now need workers with customer service and soft skills to compete with the convenience of online shopping.

To meet that need, retailers could explore opportunities for on-the-job training and career advancement opportunities, Shayne said. That can help change attitudes about working in retail, particularly among young people.

“It can be extremely valuable to change perceptions of occupations. There are career opportunities in retail. It is not just an entry-level job,” she said. “Retail is often where young people get their first job and develop soft skills. Our research will help to understand what the advancement trajectories are in the retail industry.”

Photo of retail transaction with cashier

Shayne said retailers could facilitate career development by partnering younger employees with more experienced workplace mentors and by connecting with public workforce boards to find qualified applicants, strategies that have been effective in other sectors.

Retailers also need to remove obstacles to advancement.

“You may have a diverse workforce at the entry level that requires support in order to advance,” Shayne said.

For employees with small children, that support could mean a consistent work schedule to accommodate their day care schedule.

Retail Stands to Benefit from Collaborating to Solve Worker Concerns

Companies in the health care, energy, technology, and manufacturing industries frequently collaborate on sectoral strategies to solve workforce development challenges. After they identify needs, they partner with a public workforce board, educational institution, or some other industry-specific training programs to fill a skills gap.

One study showed the approach spurred wage increases in information technology, manufacturing, construction, and other fields.

The Urban Institute logo

Research from the Urban Institute indicates that retailers could collaborate to find ways to upskill workers.

“In health care and other sectors, groups of employers come together to address human resource issues and collaboratively devise solutions in partnership with the government,” Shayne said. “You haven’t seen it as much in the retail sector, but I think it’s emerging. Retailers can get together, look at their workforce and decide to impact change in a positive way.”

That sectoral — or industrywide — approach would be a proactive shift in retail where major players, like Amazon, Walmart, and Target, often initiate change, and others follow.

The Urban Institute: On a Mission to Improve Economic Opportunity

Since 1968, the Urban Institute has researched ways to improve economic opportunity and the quality of life for millions of Americans. Now, the institute’s workforce development research can guide retailers as they fill the skills gap in a rapidly evolving industry.

Partnerships with public boards on training programs could help build a qualified workforce and help more workers view retail as a career instead of a first job or a way to earn extra money.

Retailers could also consider providing on-the-job training programs, pairing younger workers with more experienced mentors, and offering a clear advancement path. Sometimes, that may mean switching functions while remaining with the business. For example, training in the in-demand field of data analytics could help a retail associate get a job in IT while making the company more competitive.

As do other industries, retailers could consider collaborating with one another on solutions to their shared workforce development needs.

“Retailers need to look at their workforces and decide how to impact change in a positive way,” Shayne said.

The Urban Institute’s research is poised to help businesses make decisions that will impact the future of workers — and brands — across the industry.