Ready to Work: Opportunities in Retail for Youth

By Emily Stover, Ted Carroll, NuDonna Williams, and Hester Buell

Flipping hamburgers, folding shirts, ringing up customers, and scooping ice cream. These classic examples may remind you of your first job and the important lessons you carry with you to this day. Despite a recent drop in youth employment, this first job is still an essential part of many students’ learning experiences. A third of American teenagers are working, 30% of high school graduates begin their careers immediately upon graduation, and 77% of part-time college students are also punching the clock¹. A majority of those working are employed in the retail and service sectors, and in 2016 retail alone accounted for 55% of teen employment². So, what can retail and service sector leaders do to help ensure these students and new graduates start their careers off on the right foot?

Many retail and service sector employers recognize the key role they play in student’s development and have even developed specific programs serving this population. For example, Gap Inc.’s This Way Ahead program serves youth in select cities by partnering with local organizations to provide training for in-demand skills, in-store internships, and a mentor. In the greater Chicago area Gap Inc. partnered with Retail Opportunity Network member Youth Job Center (YJC) to offer this training and help area youth
advance in their retail careers. YJC is dedicated to addressing the epidemic of
Opportunity Youth, or young people who are disconnected from work and school. The Center’s work with young people in high schools, ages 14–18, is meant to serve as a preventative measure to this issue. A large part of YJC’s work is connecting young people to employment experiences while they are still in school, and many of these employment experiences are naturally in the retail and service sectors, where students learn essential soft skills. A positive first employment experience can have a significant impact on a young person’s trajectory, decreasing their chances of experiencing unemployment while increasing their future wage-earning potential.

Through their work, YJC has found employer partnerships to be essential to the process of helping youth kick start their careers. Employers, including YJC’s partners Wintrust and Lettuce Entertain You, are dedicated to helping youth overcome barriers to success and work with YJC to customize trainings to their specific needs as well as working closely with career advisors and clients to better understand the barriers that many employed youth experience. A prime example of this type of collaboration is YJC’s work
with Wintrust Bank, which has yielded work-readiness trainings that focus on positive communication skills, basic financial literacy, conflict resolution skills, understanding the workplace culture of a financial institution, and more. This collaboration allows YJC to provide youth with personalized training that improves training effectiveness and provides YJC, the client, and employer the opportunity to address any workplace issues before they reach the point where termination of employment is necessary. This deep level of collaboration and support provides young people with valuable work experience before they ever leave high school, helping them build a foundational set of skills that they can utilize for the rest of their lives.

How has YJC maintained such powerful employer collaborations? Some of their best practices developed over the years include building a strong relationship with employer partners, knowing the employers’ culture, having clear pathways for youth’s growth with the employer, and plugging training programs into existing employer structures such as management training. YJC also invites employers into schools to meet students and help them learn about career pathways and options at school hiring fairs.

Since retail and service sector employers play an outsize role in employing today’s youth and that first job can set an employee along a trajectory towards success, it is essential that students are equipped with the skills they need to thrive in these roles and employers understand the youth they’re hiring. Partnerships between employers and local organizations such as YJC are one great way of ensuring young people are matched with great jobs and employers benefit from great employees. You can learn more about advancing frontline retail and service sector workers by following the Retail Opportunity Network via #RetailOpportunity or #youth #ourfuture.


¹ Bureau of Labor Statistics data, 2017
² “Employment Trends: Teens in Retail”, Allison Zeller, National Retail Federation.

Emily Stover is Hope Street Group’s Manager, Jobs and Economic Opportunity. Follow her via Twitter @EmilyStover34.

Ted Carroll is Youth Job Center’s Manager, Grants and Communications.

NuDonna Williams is Youth Job Center’s In-School Youth Partners Program Manager.

Hester Buell is Youth Job Center’s High School Career Advisor.