Retail Employees Lack Training. Does It Matter?

Raising engagement levels and building more flexible work arrangements may offer better options to boost performance.

Only 1 in 3 U.S. retail employees have received formal training from their employers, according to a June report from the Sloan Center on Aging & Work at Boston College. Sound the alarm! Fire up the LMS! Send out the classroom trainers! Not so fast.

The industry tends to rely much more heavily on employees that are in lower age groups without the expectation that those employees are going to be there for the long term, particularly among the front-line workers, said Stephen Sweet, associate professor of sociology at Ithaca College and one of the authors of the report, Talent Pressures and the Aging Workforce: Responsive Action Steps for the Retail Trade Sector.

Consequently, many employers in the sector believe they’ll never recoup the cost of training employees who may be gone tomorrow. Couple that with the fact that many front-line retail jobs are low-skill jobs that don’t require intensive training, and it’s easy to see why the sector lags behind in employee development.

The Sloan study combined publicly available data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and employee survey data across industries with proprietary surveys of nearly 700 employers to compare the talent management practices and operations of companies across the economy.

While the economy has undergone dramatic transformation over the past few decades as industry shifted from manufacturing to services, retail practices haven’t changed all that much, Sweet said.

If we think about the front-line workers within a Gap or a Walmart, that work is largely quite similar to the ways it used to be performed, he said. There is some difference in the way front-line workers interact with one another, but the work is really quite similar.

For highly skilled areas of retail, such as marketing and operations, it’s a different story. Workers in those roles require ongoing development to stay abreast of industry trends and remain competitive. But many front-line retail jobs lack growth potential and require only modest skills. So if training isn’t necessarily the path to higher performance in front-line retail, what practices can make a difference?

It might not be so much an issue of development as it is of maximizing the potential of keeping employees engaged and happy with their engagement in their job, Sweet said. As they are working on the front lines the presentation of the company actually rests on their shoulders.

In addition to boosting engagement, tactics to boost job flexibility can aid in the management of this talent pool.

Flexibility is one of those areas where the industry has the potential to grow, Sweet said. There are a number of flexible work structures, but they are not always designed with the employee’s interest in mind.

Employee schedules often change dramatically from week to week based on the employer’s needs. Taking steps to develop schedules further in advance, for example, can minimize the disruption to employees’ lives by offering them an opportunity to negotiate schedules among themselves.

So while training in the retail sector appears to lag behind other sectors, that’s because other factors can play a larger role in employees’ success.There are ways that those employees can be more satisfied with their jobs, to report greater satisfaction with their employer and also to have greater levels of pride in the work they perform, Sweet said. Some of that can come from pay and benefits, but there are other aspects of the jobs in terms of the design of the work and the demands of the work that flexibility might be able to address.