#LIAW - Why Retail Matters

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Pat Steele

The retail industry has, historically, rarely been an area of focus for the public workforce system and workforce development programs, even though according to the National Retail Federation, the retail industry supports one in four American jobs.   Due to the rise of automation, online shopping, and other innovative models, retail appears to be in the midst of a transformation and a redefinition of jobs that now include transportation, logistics, and security as part of the skills retail workers may need.

Certainly, the shift to online shopping and the introduction of automation has impacted the nature and potential future of the industry, including the elimination of some jobs, but retail remains an important source of jobs for communities across the country. In Central Iowa (Greater Des Moines) retail employment is about 23 percent of total employment, slightly higher than the 21.6 percent found nationally.

Even if retail employment will decline in the long run, it would be difficult to argue that retail and service industry jobs, much less the foundational skills they require and help employees develop, will disappear entirely anytime soon. Thus, as long as these jobs constitute a significant portion of the labor market, retail and service industry employment should remain an important task for workforce development professionals and intermediaries.

Central Iowa Works, an initiative of United Way of Central Iowa, with funding from the National Fund for Workforce Solutions, has been given the opportunity to work with employers in the retail industry to collectively identify and develop a coordinated response to ongoing industry workforce challenges. Creating an industry partnership with retailers from both the urban and rural parts of the Des Moines region is now underway as we look to draw employers from retail, accommodations/food services and retail banking.

To better understand the regional retail workforce trends and the potential issues facing the industry is the first step that Central Iowa Works undertook. We commissioned the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL) to conduct an initial analysis of the Des Moines region’s retail workforce. CAEL used a blended method to complete this study, not only collecting quantitative data but also garnering qualitative feedback and information from industry employers through focus groups and interviews.

The report yielded some interesting findings.  First, the millennial population in Greater Des Moines is growing at a faster rate than the national average, having increased from 6.1 percent from 2012-2016, compared to 2.6 percent nationwide. This population supplies a substantial portion of both workers and consumers to the retail industry.

Second, a key issue for employers in finding quality talent is a basic lack of foundational soft skills, such as professionalism, service-oriented attitude and interpersonal communication. Across all sectors, employers saw this lack of skills as a barrier to filling in-demand jobs.

Third, employers rarely have formal training and development programs in place (outside of retail banking) or clearly defined internal pathways for advancement into supervisory/management positions. Most training and development takes place on an ad hoc or informal basis.

Finally, other workforce challenges listed by employers include scheduling, wages and compensation, transportation and child care.

The CAEL report identifies at least four areas of activity where the retail and service industry partnership in the Des Moines region could have significant impact in addressing the workforce issues faced by employers:

  1. Develop awareness-building efforts around industry career opportunities and skill requirements
  2. Development and promotion of career pathway/ladders and skills-based development approaches among employers
  3. Creation of soft skill programs and other external training opportunities
  4. Identification of innovative and collective solutions to common problems, such as transportation, scheduling, and child care

The real power and potential of industry partnerships is the ability to foster and drive ongoing collective problem-solving. Our next step is to build a retail industry partnership in Central Iowa that is guided, first and foremost by the needs of businesses, which in turn can help build a workforce that is well-prepared and well-aligned with labor market demand.

Read the full report Preparing for Partnership: An Analysis of the Retail Industry in Central Iowa.

Pat Steele

-- Director, Central Iowa Works