Workforce boards are critical to filling retail job openings

By Adam Lukoskie

In today’s tight labor market, retailers are focused on tapping into new sources of talent and training to fill more than 800,000 open positions in the industry. That’s no easy task; to achieve it, retailers are going to need partners — a lot of partners.

That’s why, in mid-October, the NRF Foundation hosted its first Retail Works Summit: a two-day conference that brought together retailers and almost 100 workforce development boards from communities across the country to learn more about the careers retail has to offer, the skills needed to be successful and the potential for long-term partnerships on shared goals.

Workforce development partners encompass these workforce boards, as well as all the nonprofit (and some for-profit) organizations that help prepare and place workers. Since these organizations tailor their programming to meet the unique needs of a specific region, community, demographic group or sector, they present an important opportunity for retailers. Development boards, however, remain one of the least known and most underutilized resources among retailers.

The federal government invests approximately $10 billion annually to train and connect over 20 million youth and adults with employment opportunities. Some of these funds are dispersed through states to local workforce development boards, which direct how funds are invested to meet the workforce needs in their communities. By law, some of these funds support American Job Centers, which are a key recruitment source for hundreds of thousands of employers, including many retailers. While there have been some successful partnerships between these groups and retailers, we’re only just beginning to realize the huge potential for collaboration. 

RISE Up Participant- In Class

The NRF Foundation has been building relationships with this community over the past year, particularly as we have implemented the RISE Up credentialing initiative. In the course of this work, we realized that many retailers are not aware of workforce development partners or are not collaborating with them to find talent.

We held the Retail Works Summit to change that. Our goals were to educate the workforce development community about career pathways in retail, establish partnerships between retailers and workforce groups and elevate new models to facilitate even more effective collaboration. Attendees heard directly from retail leaders, workforce development executives and key research partners about their successes, learnings and perspectives on what additional opportunities lay ahead.

There were several key takeaways from the Summit:

  • An ideal fit for retail: Speakers emphasized that workforce development partners can help retailers solve a wide range of challenges, such as finding higher quality and more diverse applicants, filling non-seasonal and part-time openings and increasing retention rates for entry-level jobs. Simply put, these groups can provide connections to millions of workers in communities across the country.
  • Partnership for the long term: Workforce boards are becoming longer-term strategic partners for employers, with leaders investing more resources in training programs like digital literacy and customer service that provide job seekers with the skills they need to be successful. Many development boards are now specifically designing programs to meet the longer-term needs of key employment sectors, including retail.
  • Continuing the conversation: Ongoing education, conversation and partnership are critical for advancing progress — on both sides. Workforce development groups want to learn more about retail and the opportunities available in the industry. Retailers can help achieve these shared goals through increased engagement and transparency to provide workforce development groups and prospective candidates with a clearer sense of pay, timeframes for advancement and the skills and experiences needed to move up the retail career ladder.
  • More specific engagement: Boards can play a critical role in helping retailers fill openings for hard-to-recruit roles like distribution centers and call centers. But to do so, they need to be in the know. Retailers must take the lead in reaching out to board leaders to close employment gaps.

The Summit was just the beginning. Through next year, we will continue to educate retailers about the benefits of partnering with workforce development groups. To date, five retail partners have agreed to guarantee interviews for RISE Up credential holders. The short-term goal of this partnership is to increase interest and applications for these retailers while building a long-term relationship between the retailer and workforce development group.

RISE Up brochures at a training center

That’s where you come in. We’re here to support your partnership with workforce development groups, whether you’re seeking to partner for the first time or you already have experience. The NRF Foundation staff can provide resources to learn more about workforce development partnerships, facilitate connections and offer guidance to help your organization connect with partners that fit best with your goals and needs.  

To start a conversation and explore partnership opportunities, contact Adam Lukoskie at the NRF Foundation.