From Preparation to Practice: Learning from the Fall Retail Opportunity Network Convening
As retailers plan for Black Friday sales, design holiday promotional events and scramble to find additional staff to man stores in the middle of the fourth quarter rush, members of the Retail Opportunity Network (RON) gathered in Des Moines, Iowa from November 7–8th for the From Preparation to Practice: Transformation of the Retail Ecosystem fall convening to discuss next steps in addressing the retail transformation that has captured headlines and upended the sector in recent years.
The rise of in-store technology, online or omni-channel shopping, and an increasing emphasis on customer experience are all driving rapid change on the frontlines of the retail sector. To prepare for this change, RON members examined three major topics that are key to creating a thriving retail talent ecosystem: lifelong learning, signaling between employers, training providers and credentialing agencies and employer engagement.
Lifelong learning, or the ongoing and voluntary pursuit of knowledge and skills, is essential to ensuring frontline retail talent is prepared to face the future of work. One 2016 McKinsey study suggests up to 53% of retailing activities are subject to automation. As part of the transformation of the retail sector, frontline retail workers increasingly interact with technology every day, even though a recent study by the National Skills Coalition found that 73% of frontline workers lack digital problem solving skills. This means frontline workers will need upskilling to maintain efficiency and relevance in current and future job markets.
One example of intentional upskilling in the retail sector emerged from the convening’s site-visit to the Midwestern grocery chain Hy-Vee, where an online fulfillment center in Urbandale, Iowa now employs many former frontline, in-store employees. Workers at the Hy-Vee fulfillment center were trained to use new technology such as headsets and handheld computers to pack and complete online grocery orders.
To help RON members achieve the level of collaboration and coordination among retailers and community based organizations (CBOs) necessary to promote a lifelong learning environment able to meet the changing needs of incumbent, frontline workers and retail employers, the fall RON convening assembled a panel of experts from the Graduate! Network, UpSkill America and the Southern Rural Development Center. Some of the best practices that surfaced included using aggregated economic data to demonstrate a program’s intended impact across organizations, providing clear tools for training program development and identifying and addressing community barriers to learning.
One common barrier to learning in the retail sector is the lack of a clear signaling system for credentials outside of traditional degrees. As the learning needs of frontline workers evolve, many retailers are seeking new ways to validate and recognize the skills workers develop and to hire workers with certifications for new skills. For example, the visit with Hy-Vee included an insightful look into the company’s training program for earning nationally-recognized certifications in specialty areas such as wine or cheese knowledge and service.
During the convening, Credential Engine and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation provided early looks into their own efforts to bring more transparency to existing retail credentials and to partner with retailers on streamlined talent pipeline development that emphasizes collaboration between educators, communities and employers.
Over the course of our time supporting the RON, Hope Street Group has found that engaging employers is a fundamental success indicator undergirding the development of any lifelong learning community or program and the establishment of a clear signaling ecosystem for valid industry credentials.
FSG, whose Talent Rewire program encourages employers to reexamine their hiring systems, shared concrete examples of employers codifying best practices for collaboration including the disaggregation of employers’ data, facilitating employers to identify HR opportunities based on that data, and promoting the clear business case for the time and effort it takes to collect and act upon said data.
Although the convening dedicated much of its learning time to these three major topics, a fourth underlying theme tied all three learning topics together: equity. The core mission of the Retail Opportunity Network is to advance frontline retail workers. Women and people of color are disproportionately represented on the frontlines of retail. All RON members are committed to bringing equity to the forefront of our work and recognizing the impact our programs can have on the communities we serve.
As the convening’s keynote speaker, Jerry Hawkins, Director of Dallas Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation, expressed — equity is both a goal and, more importantly, a process. The RON stands at the very beginning of this process and although challenges lie ahead, the recent fall convening demonstrated that intentional collaboration among RON members helps members face similar challenges in lifelong learning, signaling and employer engagement in communities across America.
We look forward to continuing this conversation online using the hashtag #RetailOpportunity, and through future events designed for sharing resources, starting with our upcoming webinars hosted with the NRF Foundation and our partner Reimagine Retail Chicagoland.