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Avoid 3 Critical Business Disrupters: Upskill Your Frontline Workers

While the last jobs report showed a reduction in the unemployment rate to 4.9% (the lowest rate since 2008), there are still 8.7 million Americans looking for work. And there are 24 million frontline workers who might be able to fill the estimated five million vacant positions in the U.S. if they were given the opportunity to develop additional skills. In short, there is a mismatch between job openings and people looking for work.

At the same time, demand for middle-level management skills is increasing. By 2017, an estimated 2.5 million new, middle-skill jobs (those that require post-high school education but not a four-year college degree) are expected to be added to the U.S. workforce. The will account for nearly 40% of all job growth. Making those opportunities known to the right people and providing training/reskilling opportunities to help people qualify for them is critical.

Here's the challenge: Research by i4cp and The Aspen Institute found that employers are falling short with efforts to upskill frontline workers. While 89% of organizations offer development opportunities to frontline workers, 60% do not view development of this workforce segment as a priority, and nearly the same percentage (59%) indicate their employers do not measure and reward managers for developing these workers. The risks associated with not paying attention to developing this worker segment are real and substantial.

I believe that by enhancing upskilling efforts, companies can avoid three business disrupters:

  • Poor customer experience. Frontline workers are often those who interact most (or first) with customers and influence their experience, loyalty and advocacy. Insufficient development of these employees can negatively affect their product and company knowledge and marginalize their customer service skills. Obviously, this risks negative customer experience with both the company and its brand.
  • Weak employer brand. Companies are in a constant battle to hire and retain frontline workers. Often, companies struggle to fill open positions because candidates lack the skills needed to be successful in these roles. Investing in the development of frontline workers can reduce this skills mismatch and help improve workers' perception of the employer as a great place to work.
  • Lack of leadership pipelines. Frontline workers are often relied upon to provide a pipeline of employees who can eventually move into more senior roles, particularly in retail, hospitality, manufacturing, etc. Lack of follow-through with employee development jeopardizes the readiness of these workers to take on greater responsibilities and also contributes to high turnover.

When frontline workers take advantage of development opportunities, it has a positive impact on the market performance of the organization. And the opportunity for positive bottom-line impact through frontline worker development is significant, as it affects those who often work most closely with an organization's customers.

We clearly saw in our research that there are differences in impact between a company that makes significant upskilling investments and hopes for a good outcome, versus a company that has a truly strong upskilling culture. The latter are seeing a return on development investments in the forms of higher employee retention, stronger customer satisfaction, and better overall market performance. Which type of company do you lead?

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Kevin Martin
Kevin Martin is the chief research officer at i4cp. A highly sought-after international keynote speaker on all aspects of human resources and talent management, Kevin has been recognized as a “Top 100 HR Influencer” by HR Examiner, is a renowned keynote speaker, and has been published in Forbes, Wall Street Journal, and HBR.