Businesses and their philanthropic arms continue to forge new paths to find and develop workers who are equipped to operate and advance in today’s economy. Among them is the Wal-Mart Foundation, which granted a $10.9 million grant to Chicago’s workforce development board to help launch a training center for retail workers this fall.
“One of the goals is to make Cook County a leader in regional economic development. Supporting workforce development in all of our communities is a critical component of that goal,” said Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle during a public launch event for the Chicagoland Retail Sector Center.
In one of the center’s training rooms, city and Wal-Mart Foundation officials discussed the municipality’s rich retail roots and called the new center a vehicle for people to move their careers forward and find greater opportunities for themselves and their families.
The Chicagoland Retail Sector Center will serve both individuals as well local employers, many of whom are small businesses. Services for individuals include nationally-recognized retail certification, assistance with retail career planning, retail-related training and job placement. Employers will have access to training, as well as recruitment assistance, customized hiring events and customized on-the-job training programs.
According to the National Retail Federation, retail supports 1 in 4 jobs in the U.S. In Illinois, some 1.7 million jobs — enough “to fill Soldier Field for three Chicago Bears football seasons.”
Kathleen McLaughlin, the Walmart Foundation’s president and Wal-Mart’s chief sustainability officer, said in recent years the retail company has been highlighted for reinvesting in its employees’ development. But over the past two years, it has been working to expand its reach and impact on the broader sector’s workforce.
“We wanted to make the opportunity more systematic and especially in the context of a changing retail environment,” McLaughlin said during the event. “The expectations of our customers are increasing, the skill level that’s required to effectively serve the customers is increasing.”
McLaughlin said the investment, part of a larger $100 million Opportunity Initiative, was about helping position the retail industry for the future. In Chicago, the initiative selected local workforce development agency Pyramid Partnership to manage and operate the center and award subgrants to 10 other workforce development initiatives across the country.
That large companies like Wal-Mart are working to develop talent in different ways — connecting with community-based workforce development organizations — is a big deal, said Lynn Schroeder, vice president of client relations for The Council for Adult and Experiential Learning. The advocacy and research organization facilitates Business Champions Supporting Credential Completion, a collaborative council of leaders purposed to train up the next generation workforce in their respective spaces. Companies represented include Goodwill, Hilton Worldwide, McDonald’s as well as Wal-Mart.
“Investing in the learning of the workforce at the front-line and middle level strata requires that we think not just at an individual company level but an industry level,” Schroeder said.
In meetings she’s had with the group, Schroeder said leaders quickly gather on common ground — that across various industries, the core skills front-line workers need to be successful look about the same. “You have to think what does it mean to help create a set of employability skills for the front-line workforce.”
A 2015 Fortune article predicted a surplus of 95 million low-skilled workers around the world by 2020, compared to an approximate shortage of 40 million high-skilled workers and 45 million medium-skill workers. Regardless of skill level, as forces like technology alter the speed and nature of business, without some kind intervention, the gap between what companies need to compete and what talent is available to make them competitive will increase. Business leaders must think creatively and deeply about how they nurture employee pipelines and grow their own workforce.
“Companies increasingly understand that they have to create their workforce,” Schroeder said. “They understand that part of that is partnering with communities and K-12 and starting to think across each other’s footprint, so sharing conversations around ‘What are the front-line skills that we need’ and ‘How do we partner with higher ed in a very different way than we did before,’ will happen.”
Bravetta Hassell is a Chief Learning Officer associate editor. Comment below, or email editor@CLOmedia.com.
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