Frontline Workers and the Skills for Tomorrow’s Economy


Posted In: Workforce Insight

Feb • 15 • 2017

Frontline Workers and the Skills for Tomorrow's Education

In 2015, President Barack Obama launched a far-reaching federal program to educate the nation’s frontline workers. Titled the Upskill Initiative, the President specifically called on employers to train their vital but sometimes overlooked frontline workers. By doing so, these workers could progress to better paying jobs, thus lifting themselves and their families into the middle class.


In his 2015 State of the Union address, President Obama urged companies to “offer more educational benefits and paid apprenticeships — opportunities that give workers the chance to earn high-paying jobs even if they don’t have a higher education.”

In the year since its launch, the Upskill Initiative has recruited about 100 major companies, including CVS Health, Starwood Hotels, Kaiser Permanente, and Chipotle. In terms of how the program has impacted frontline workers, an update from the White House reports about 100,000 workers have obtained training that could lead to higher skill jobs; more than 10,000 have earned degrees and credentials, and roughly 5,000 have advanced to higher-paying positions.


Where are frontline workers?


The frontline workers who make up College for America students are represented in a wide swath of industries performing an even wider array of duties. They may be assembly line workers in a factory, orderlies in a health-care facility, long-haul truck drivers, and day laborers on a construction site. They may also be retail store clerks, call center employees, and bank tellers.


Nearly 40 percent of these frontline workers serve in three industries:


  • health care and social assistance (i.e., home health workers);
  • retail (cashiers); and
  • food services and accommodations (cooks and wait staff).


More broadly speaking, frontline workers reflect the term given to them: they stand on the front lines, dealing directly with customers, most likely delivering a service. In the factory, they’re responsible for the hands-on manufacturing of a product. This group also encompasses those managers who supervise frontline workers.


What characteristics do they share?


The Upskill Initiative counts 24 million Americans as frontline workers. Within that group, several characteristics emerge. This cohort includes mostly low-wage earners making less than $30,000 a year, which places them in the lower third of all full-time workers.


Typically, frontline workers hold an associate degree or a degree below that level. And they are mostly young: a third of frontline workers are under the age of 35, reports Deloitte and the Aspen Institute.

In addition, according to a report from the Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4CP) and Upskill America, Developing America’s Frontline Workers, many of these workers possess low-literacy skills, which forces them into low-wage positions.


Their low literacy skills place these individuals at Level 2 on the Organisation for Economic Co-operation (OECD) international literacy scale. In real-life terms, that means they’re often unable to compare and contrast information or assimilate several pieces of information at the same time. This lack of literacy skills obviously limits the ability to find better-paying positions.


The i4CP and Upskill America estimate that 36 million Americans fall into that category. While some may be unemployed, two of every three of that 36 million — 24 million — work. So, there is definite overlap between low-skilled and low-wage frontline workers.


What skills do frontline workers need?


The push to train frontline workers is motivated in part by the numerous jobs that currently go unfilled due to a mismatch between available workers and the required skills needed to perform in those jobs.


More specifically, in today’s marketplace, employers say they are seeking workers with “baseline skills.” To further define those sought-after capabilities, job marketing analytics company Burning Glass recently poured over millions of job postings to uncover what exactly hiring managers look for in candidates.


Though skill sets varied by industry, in general, employers desire employees who possess a combination of practical and/or technical aptitude, such as being able to master basic software programs, as well as higher level cognitive skills, chiefly the ability to write and communicate well and solve problems.


From transactions to problem solving


Even jobs considered “entry level,” or frontline, such as call center customer service reps, require workers to do more than merely handle a transaction; technology now handles those straightforward processes. Since most retail or call center transactions are accomplished automatically via a website, customers only reach out to a customer service rep for more complex problems.


In those instances, the customer service rep must first grasp the person’s dilemma and then solve the client’s situation to his or her satisfaction. Indeed, it’s what customers want most when dealing with customer service, as a report from Accenture details.


In that study, the consulting firm named the top three customer satisfaction drivers in retail banking: trustworthiness (56 percent), high-quality customer service (55 percent), and a skilled workforce aware of their needs (55 percent).


In other words, customers demand a trusted and empathetic advisor to help them solve their particular problem. That requires a frontline worker with higher level cognitive and critical-thinking skills, as well as the ability to properly communicate the solution to the client,  whether that be in person, over the phone, in a letter, or via social media.


A framework for evaluating workplace skills


A website produced by the Department of Education, Employability Skills Framework, further defines workplace skills as:


  • Applied Knowledge: The ability to integrate academic and technical knowledge for practical use in the workplace.
  • Effective Relationships: Having the interpersonal skills necessary to foster beneficial relationships with clients, co-workers, and supervisors.
  • Workplace Skills: To perform their tasks, workers must have analytical and organizational competence.


Training frontline workers in those skills not only makes for a better workforce, it also provides companies with a steady pipeline of management-ready executives.


Burning Glass’s research found that the overwhelming majority of management jobs in all fields now require a bachelor’s degree, yet only 42 percent of current job holders have one.

College for America’s partners are learning that it’s possible to provide frontline workers with the opportunity to earn a higher education degree and enhance their cognitive, organizational and critical thinking skills. Developing your workforce means developing your bottom line.