The first-ever “I AM RETAIL” summit took place in Dallas this week. It was hosted by the ACT Foundation and attended by workforce stakeholders from across the country who, like National Able Network, share a common goal of implementing innovative solutions to recruiting, hiring, training, promoting, and retaining the future retail workforce. The challenges retail hiring managers face are alarming: they can review hundreds of applicants to identify five to six candidates with basic qualifications for initial interviews to identify the right candidate for the job. This process can take weeks, not to mention countless hours of staff time during the candidate review process. All this effort is expended to replace ONE, just one, entry-level worker at a cost of $2,080 per employee replaced. All told, this screening trend costs retailers an average of $133,000,000 (!) annually.

With the generous support of the Walmart Foundation, National Able Network has helped more than 1,000 job seekers custom-design individual career plans in retail and adjacent sectors such as information technology, transportation, manufacturing and more. The majority of the job seekers enrolled participated in training programs for middle-skill occupations–those that require less than a degree, but more than a high school diploma–in these growing sectors. By investing the time and effort to identify the job seeker’s career goals upfront, National Able Network’s candidates are qualified, eager, and are more likely to retain their jobs in the long term, reducing both the time and costs hiring managers spend during the screening and hiring process.

In addition to the 1,000+ job seekers who participated in the program, we also developed and tested a unique training program designed to help individuals transition into retail careers: Retail Career Lab. Designing a brand-new training program is usually the more challenging of tasks, but we knew that in order for Retail Career Lab to be successful, we would need to dispel common misconceptions that retail is just some starting point for more careers in different “more promising” sectors. In fact, this is not the case at all: one in four American jobs is in retail, encompassing a wide range of cross-sector occupations, including those in information technology, transportation, marketing, and more. One of the primary objectives of the Retail Career Lab program was to help dispel those myths so that every participant who entered the program had a broader understanding of the sector itself. The result: 100 percent of the individuals who participated in the Retail Career Lab program said that they had improved their understanding of retail, and 100 percent left the program with an improved perception of retail careers. These achievements alone would have been sufficient evidence of the program’s success. But our trainees achieved even more exceptional outcomes: of those who completed the program, 92 percent reported increased wages. Further, the average wage increase was $5.90 per hour. Of those who became employed, 80 percent were offered employee benefits, breaking down one of the most common misconceptions of retail jobs.

During the summit, I was able to share with my peers the outcomes of our experience in preparing workers for careers, which was a great complement to all of the amazing tidbits I learned from them. All of us agreed that retail training can only be successful when employer partners can validate and/or help us identify core competencies that provide the underpinning of the career coaching and training curriculum we offer to job seekers. Some peers shared that there is “no substitute to shoe leather;” in other words, personalized connections and relationship-building will always be vital to high-functioning partnerships with hiring managers. On the other foot, some peers shared that job seekers and hiring partners seek out less leather, opting instead for leading-edge technology resources for training and job candidate screening.

At the intersection of the shoe leather and virtual reality, the I AM RETAIL summit conducted live polls with the audience. We were asked to respond to questions, then invited to share responses to those questions in real time via text, Twitter, or on their website. Being live-polled on various topics, one more fascinating than the next, I learned that the vast majority of summit attendees began working between the age of 14 and 16, myself included. An overwhelming 98 percent of us live-responded that we learned something in those first jobs that we continue to apply in our current jobs. I was part of that 98 percent who said that what I learned from my first job still influences me many, many years later.

I got my first job when I was 14 years old as a little league baseball umpire. While a summer job at a local park is in and of itself unremarkable for a teenager, mine was somewhat unique because I was the only female umpire. When I first started the job, I tucked my long hair under my umpire cap. Spectators may have still known I was a girl anyway, but I thought this would help call less attention to my gender. As the season went on, I stopped tucking my hair, and amplified my voice to make the play calls. The greatest lesson I learned in this first job was to maintain courage under pressure. I had a job to do, and despite the gawkers and hecklers, the park believed in my abilities, I had passed the umpire test, and I was there to call the game. I had earned my spot and soon I would earn $15 or $20 after three or more dusty, sweaty hours on the baseball diamond. Long after my tenure as an umpire, I wore my umpire jersey and cap as a Halloween costume, because, well, it was in fact a scary thing to be a little league umpire.

As I reflect on my time at the I AM RETAIL summit, I am reminded of all of the great outcomes our clients have achieved; individuals like Arturo Contreras, Jr., and Norman Moss. Like me, these individuals demonstrate courage under pressure as they open themselves up to the endless opportunities retail has to offer.

If you are interested in learning more about Retail Career Lab, click here or contact us at info@retailcareerlab.org.