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Retail Careers: An Overlooked Pathway to Future Jobs

Retail careers can play an integral role in helping people develop competitive future-proof skills. The retail industry is primed to offer opportunities for workers to continually hone the skills least susceptible to automation—human skills.

March 23, 2020

At a Glance

Retail careers can play an integral role in helping people develop competitive future-proof skills. The retail industry is primed to offer opportunities for workers to continually hone the skills least susceptible to automation—human skills.

Matthew A. Poland
Jacqueline Gonzalez

The term “future of work” usually conjures thoughts of robots and automation—a world where people have to gain technical skills to keep up with ubiquitous and ever-changing technologies.

But employability skills will likely be just as important as technical skills to the future of work.

Employability skills aren’t “hard” skills, like the ability to code or troubleshoot a laptop that won’t start; they’re all of the other competencies and types of expertise people need to succeed on the job—and they matter.

Employability skills include interpersonal communication, critical thinking, and problem-solving capabilities, as well as more intrinsic qualities such as adaptability and an entrepreneurial mindset.

According to the World Economic Forum’s The Future of Jobs Report 2018, demand is already high for traits like creativity, leadership, and emotional intelligence, and that demand will trend upward through 2022, as this table from the report indicates:

Retail Work Builds Valuable Skills

How should people go about developing a mix of skills that will be valuable in the job market of the future? One option is to work in retail.

Sitting at a key nexus of the economy, retail is a sector where people can develop hard skills through work with technologies like point-of-sale systems and handheld inventory devices while also building harder-to-define employability skills by providing customer service and learning to work as members of teams.

JFF research (funded by the Best Buy Foundation and Walmart Foundation) demonstrates that retail careers help people develop three types of cross-industry foundational competencies:

  • Technical Competencies: Retail employees use a number of computer-based tools, including cash registers that are the front ends of sophisticated point-of-sale systems, merchandising and inventory systems, and various software applications.
  • Employability Competencies: Retail jobs require a certain type of disposition and attitude, as well as the ability to communicate effectively. Workers must understand standard business English and know how to use word processing and email systems in order to produce written work is clear, direct, courteous, and grammatical.
  • Entrepreneurial Competencies: Retailers encourage their employees to innovate and come up with new ideas, and that requires an understanding of design thinking, idea generation, and product and business development.

Stores May Close, But Opportunities Emerge

Of course, the retail industry does face a major challenge: the decline of brick-and-mortar operations. But even as stores close, many retailers are finding ways to retrain employees to take advantage of opportunities that are emerging in ecommerce and ancillary ventures like tech support services.

Best Buy is one of the merchants that is being proactive about preparing workers to adapt to the future of work in retail and other industries. The electronics retailer offers innovative work-based learning programs through its Geek Squad Academy and Pathways to Success initiative. Here’s a quick look at each:

  • Geek Squad Academy: The primary purpose of this training program is to engage young people in STEM disciplines and get them interested in tech careers, but it also provides opportunities for current Best Buy employees to gain valuable employability skills by serving as classroom facilitators. Employees interested in becoming classroom facilitators participate in a 6-to-8-hour training program in which they are introduced to the activities they’ll be helping with and learn behavioral management and teaching strategies.
  • Pathways to Success: Offered through many of Best Buy’s community-facing Teen Tech Centers, this initiative provides young people from underserved communities with opportunities to enter into employment with Best Buy. With a mix of classroom training and extensive work-based learning, the nine-month program focuses on both technical and employability skills.

Best Buy has also put together a network of employers that share the goal of helping retail workers develop skills for jobs in IT and other sectors. Building upon the work-based learning opportunities available in retail, the network will give employees options for the next steps in their careers.

Nurture Newly Developed Skills

People can only benefit from the competencies they develop in retail jobs if they are given the time and resources they need to articulate and build upon them. Education and workforce development professionals can leverage their relationships with retail employer partners to position retail operations as places to nurture the skills of the future.

Here are three ways to work with retailers to help them help their employees develop critical employability skills:

  • Create mentorship programs in which entry-level employees are paired with managers. Mentors can draw on their own experiences to help mentees understand career advancement opportunities within the workplace, and they can point mentees to learning opportunities. Senior staffers can also serve as advocates for their younger colleagues—opening doors that may otherwise remain closed.
  • Ensure that all workers have opportunities to take advantage of tuition assistance programs, online training, and other professional development benefits. Currently, employers tend to offer perks like tuition assistance primarily to longer-term workers, and as a result, few employees make use of such benefits. Work with employers to make sure they’re aware that offering professional development programs to employees with less tenure can improve retention and help them build a more skilled workforce.
  • Build apprenticeship programs for retail managers, or encourage retailers to join similar efforts in the hospitality or restaurant industries. Apprenticeships can position workers to advance within the retail industry or pursue customer-facing management roles in other sectors. Employers can also sponsor a pre-apprenticeship programs for employees interested in careers outside of retail. For example, Lowe’s has recently expanded pre-apprenticeship initiatives for retail employees interested in the skilled trades through a program called Track to the Trades. The pre-apprenticeships help employees build develop skills while still supporting Lowe’s stores.

The Future of Work Is Upon Us

If researchers’ predictions are correct, there could be significant changes to the skills required for jobs in the near future. The future of work is up on us, and equipping students and young people with the right skills is critical.

Helping people develop employability skills through retail careers should be one of the strategies employers use to boost their employee value proposition and brand, especially given the large number of people who work in the retail today. Educators and workforce professionals should also support their populations in teasing out and naming the competitive skills being developed in retail. Programs like Best Buy’s Geek Squad Academy provide promising examples of practices that other retailers can implement.

We shouldn’t wait to react to challenges after the future of work has arrived. We can start shaping the future now.

JFF is eager to work with your employers to think creatively about ways to help retail workers develop skills for the future. We can work directly with employers or in partnership with your organization. For a free consultation, check out JFF’s Center for Apprenticeship & Work-Based Learning On-Demand consulting service.

This blog was made possible by the support of Best Buy Foundation.

Meet Nicole

  • 19 years old
  • Washington, DC, area
  • High school diploma
  • No work experience

Nicole at the Teen Tech Center (4 times/week, 2 hours/day)

Nicole learns about the BBTTC in Washington, DC, through a friend. Her friend knows that she loves to take pictures and is obsessed with editing photos on her phone, and that she is eager to learn more about photography and photo editing.

After a year of consistent participation, Nicole spends most of her time at the BBTTC as the in-house photographer—she takes photos for BBTTC events, for publications and for marketing purposes. She develops her own website that showcases her photography and hopes to sell it one day. She also teaches a photography class to middle schoolers who come to the Boys and Girls Club (where the BBTTC is co-located).

When Nicole talks about what she learned through the BBTTC experience, she discusses the following skills.

Transferrable Foundational Skills:

  • Problem solving
  • Initiative and self-drive
  • Planning and organizing
  • Conflict resolution
  • Written and digital communication
  • Teamwork

Transferrable Technical Skills:

  • Brand knowledge
  • Photo editing
  • Applied technology
  • Graphic design
  • Fundamentals of marketing

Nicole’s First Job: Customer Service Specialist at Best Buy

Nicole gets support from her career pathway coordinator at the BBTTC to interview and land a job as a customer service specialist at Best Buy. She worked with her career pathway coordinator to articulate how the competencies she developed as a BBTTC participant prepared her for success as a customer service specialist. As an entry-level customer service specialist, Nicole makes $16 an hour and works 32 hours per week. Every day at work, she puts the competencies she developed at the BBTTC to use (fundamentals of marketing, teamwork, conflict resolution) and she continues to develop additional competencies that will prepare her for her next role.

She has her sights set on a job as property manager for a new residential building in her neighborhood. Nicole heard about the job from her career pathway coordinator, who thought her customer success, marketing, and photography skills would be of value in the job. The more Nicole learns about the job, the more she feels her experience as a customer service specialist is highly transferable to a property manager role.

Here’s how Nicole talks about what she learned from her customer service specialist position.

Transferrable Foundational Skills:

  • Fundamentals of sales
  • Brand knowledge
  • Customer service / customer focus
  • Decision making
  • Adaptability and flexibility
  • Dependability, reliability, and accountability
  • Problem solving

Transferrable Sales and Product Expertise Technical Skills:

  • Product demonstration
  • Data analysis
  • Technical troubleshooting
  • Informed decision making
  • Negotiating and conflict resolution
  • Customer and partnership management

Nicole’s Second Job: Property Manager

Nicole, with support and guidance from her Best Buy manager, applies for the property manager role and gets the job! As a property manager, Nicole is the point person for residents and owners of the building she manages. During her interview, she communicated her competence in navigating challenging customer situations and described multiple situations that showcased her problem-solving skills. She also articulated that her marketing experience and photography talents would be a unique contribution to the job, as she would be able to help attract potential residents to the building. Nicole was honest during her interview that she still had some competencies to develop (data analysis, planning and prioritizing, and selling/sales), and she was confident in her other competencies and knew that she could be successful with some additional on-the-job training and mentoring.

Now, Nicole earns $20.41 per hour as a property manager, works 40 hours each week, and is eligible for benefits through her employer. Nicole has also grown her freelance photography business and is now shooting weddings and other celebratory events on the weekends.