Blog Post

It’s time to level the playing field

Cheryl Paxton-Hughes

Principal, Thought Leadership and Advisory Services

In Josh Bersin’s 2020 DEIB (diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging) study, he observes, “You can’t drive the bias out of the person; you have to drive it out of the process.” While DEIB professionals have long been making strides to implement education and awareness and remove systemic barriers to level the playing field for all workers to have an equal chance to succeed, learning and development in most organizations is still reserved for salaried employees or high potentials. If learning is offered to hourly employees, it's commonly a check-the-box compliance exercise and is not intended to provide skill development and growth.

Millions of Americans seek skill growth opportunities

In 2021, the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics reported that 76 million workers aged 16 and older are paid hourly, representing 55.8% of the U.S. Workforce. A 2022 McKinsey study conducted in collaboration with Cara Plus, surveyed over 2,100 front-line, hourly workers in the U.S. and found that less than 30% of them could access learning resources and did not know how to advance in their organizations.

The employees in the study were defined as making less than $22 an hour. This same study cites that the individuals who are most likely to be impacted by the ability to advance are women and people of color. An astonishing 75% of frontline workers, or 57 million Americans, want to be promoted, but less than 25% ever achieve a promotion.

Why is it that over half of the American workforce cannot progress in their careers and achieve the desired level of economic stability?

At Cornerstone, we believe that nothing changes until someone learns something new. Learning is the force behind innovation, transformation and connection.

Every CEO’s sleepless night is thinking about how to compete within their industry and get new products and services to market more quickly and cost-effectively than their competitors. We often hear words like transformation and innovation but frequently fall short of grasping their connection to learning.

A transformation effort requires new skills and abilities to execute any advancement. For most organizations, front-line employees make up the largest population of their workforce and are critical to executing strategy. So, if most of the workforce responsible for executing on strategy does not have access to learning new skills, then it's highly probable that transformation efforts will go unrealized or be semi-successful.

Everyone has the right to learn: The business case for equality

It is time to level the playing field of learning. When we only create learning and development programs for the elite few, we leave out most people we rely upon to achieve our organizational goals. According to the same McKinsey study, front-line employees cited that compensation, growth through promotion, paid training and high-value traditional benefits have the largest impact on making them stay with an organization.

Some industries with traditionally high turnover levels may hesitate to offer learning and development resources to hourly staff. A few reasons are:

  • They won’t be at the company long enough for the investment to pay off
  • Legal compliance related to wage and hour laws
  • The budget dollars to support paid training time for an hourly workforce
  • They lack the technology or equipment to support their development.

SHRM’s 2022 cost-per-hire benchmark is $4,700 per employee. For organizations with a high front-line turnover that only provides hourly front-line employees compliance training or job procedure training, there are missed opportunities to proactively reduce turnover that costs the organization far more than offering learning resources. What’s your own cost of turnover using SHRM’s benchmark?

Industry perspective on learning ROI

One of the biggest industries that operate as a training ground for the U.S. working population is the hospitality and restaurant Industry. According to the National Restaurant Association, 63% of adults have worked in the restaurant industry. This industry employs more minority managers than any other industry — making it a perfect breeding ground to educate and train much of the U.S. workforce.

Unfortunately, the latest U.S. BLS data, reports that Accommodation and Food Services remains one of the highest quit rates amongst other industries. Yet, the industry remains critical as the cornerstone of economic and career growth opportunities for most of the U.S. working population, particularly minority populations.

We interviewed Dora Lee, executive director of learning and development, a Cornerstone customer at Panda Restaurant Group, who is making significant strides to provide growth and learning opportunities to their workforce. Panda created the University of Panda 10 years ago, which serves as the learning foundation for helping people who want to become managers learn business acumen and leadership skills. In partnership with the University of Nevada Las Vegas, Panda is working to provide up to 12 college credits and CEU’s (continuing education credits) through the University of Panda’s existing curriculum. Additionally, they are investing in scholarships for employees who have a desire to obtain a bachelor’s degree in hospitality management.

Dora is a poster child of Panda’s internal development culture. She started her career 20 years ago with Panda as a front-of-the-house restaurant associate and is now in charge of learning and development for the organization.

Panda’s plans for future workforce development include exploring a program to help senior-level operations managers obtain a master’s degree. Most of Panda’s employee population has a high school diploma and English is their second language. The ability to move up in the company and be provided with these types of learning opportunities is a competitive advantage for Panda.

Panda has been able to maintain significantly lower than average turnover rates at a time when restaurant industry averages range as high at 144 percent, according to Black Box Intelligence.

Democratization of learning and career development

The democratization of learning and career development is empowering employees to take control of their career development and skill development in the following ways:

  • Encourage and promote your employees to self-assess and identify skills proficiencies and development areas
  • Explore career options that may be traditional (i.e., hierarchical climbing of the ladder) and non-traditional, as well as more latticed approaches — different roles within a discipline or outside of their current fields
  • Empower and reward managers for being advocates for employee internal growth and development, whether they remain on their team or move to a different manager/team/department
  • Provide equal access to learning for the enterprise-wide skills needed to execute an organization’s strategies. Provide a budget for hourly employees to develop skills outside the day-to-day job responsibilities and compliance requirements.
  • Arrange deskless workers (those without a desk and likely a computer) with a comprehensive learning and development strategy that includes mobile capabilities and shift-based training that matches the shift hours and schedules of deskless employees. One hospital we spoke with shared that they offer training for nurses at 6 a.m. and 8 p.m. to catch them before or after their shifts start or end.
  • Provide hourly employees advocacy through coaching, guidance and resources to help them navigate learning and internal career movement opportunities

Be intentional with learning equality

A commitment to giving every employee the same opportunity to succeed is only a platitude if it’s not structured and communicated intentionally. Many of the hourly employees surveyed in McKinsey’s study most likely have access to some internal development resources, however, knowing where to go and whom to talk to was not apparent. So get creative!

There are many state-funded workforce development grants and programs that your organization may qualify for in order to upskill and reskill your entire team, not just your high potentials. Finding the learning and development activities that are appropriate for all employees should not be a barrier for any deskless workers — or any employees. Keep it simple. Reduce the barriers. Employees want and deserve a level playing field!

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