Business leaders are always looking for competitive advantages, but they likely should look no further than their own employees to gain an edge over the marketplace. Training customer-facing workers and offering them learning opportunities is crucial to company success in a changing economy, according to a new study from the Institute for Corporate Productivity, or i4cp.
Front-line employees affect many key facets of a business, such as customer service and company brand, and these employees often move up in the ranks to become higher-ranking executives. All of these things suggest strongly that their development should be a priority. For instance, to create a successful leadership pipeline, these employees must be taught the skills needed to be effective in management positions.
Executives are often the masterminds behind a company’s business objectives, but front-line workers are responsible for executing it. Even a fool-proof strategy can go awry if employees lack the skills to carry it out. “Insufficient development of these workers can severely hinder the experience a customer has,” said Kevin Oakes, CEO of i4cp and co-author of the study. These employees are also representatives of the company brand. If they’re poorly trained, customers will have a lackluster impression of the business.
An evolving economy is another reason employers should invest in front-line worker development. In recent years, there has been a rise in demand for “middle skills,” or skills that require post-secondary education, but not a four-year college degree. The i4cp study projects that 2.5 million middle-skill jobs could be added to the economy by 2017. Further, the study identified a skills mismatch between what potential employees bring to the workforce and what employers are looking for. The study estimates there are 24 million front-line workers who could fill middle-skill positions if they had the knowledge to excel in these jobs.
President Obama announced the Upskill Initiative at his 2015 State of the Union address, a program that aims to give lower-skill workers a chance for upward mobility through additional skills training. This would be accomplished by expanding apprenticeships, providing more on-the-job training and increased funding from companies for its workers to continue their education while working. Some companies, such as Hilton Worldwide, McDonald’s Corp. and Wal-Mart Stores Inc. have effective front-line development strategies in place. Yet, with all of the learning options available, many employers still find it difficult to put into action.
The problem with implementing effective learning strategies for front-line workers stems from a lack of accountability and communication, Oakes said. Although many businesses offer various development strategies for this demographic — 76 percent of organizations said they provide their workers with these opportunities — 73 percent of organizations said they don’t know how many workers take advantage of them, which naturally mitigates program effectiveness.
“Organizations need to communicate a little bit better about what is available,” Oakes said. “Front-line workers need to look for those opportunities within their organizations because oftentimes they’re there.”
Further, a stigma persists that learning and development will take employees away from their responsibilities — 60 percent of study respondents do not view front-line worker development as a high priority — but it’s important to focus on the long-term effect that a more thoroughly trained workforce will have on the business. “Managers have to be committed to the fact that this is not only going to create a better employee; it’s going to help your ability to attract additional employees and improve customer service,” Oakes said.