Leaders across all industries are feeling the pressure of the tightest labor market in 50 years, restaurants chief among them. One of the biggest challenges operators face is the ability to attract and retain talent that can meet today’s marketplace demands while keeping pace with a rapidly changing industry.

More than 29 million Americans currently work in retail, according to the National Retail Federation. Traditionally, retailers have relied heavily on part-time workers—employing an estimated 17 percent of all part-time workers in the U.S.—many of whom require greater flexibility because they are students, stay-at-home parents or people who work multiple jobs.  

As a result, the industry grapples with a massive and consistent turnover rate averaging above 60 percent, which significantly impacts the bottom line. Collectively, an hourly workforce of 10,000 employees making $15 an hour would cost $30 million to replace.

The retail industry is also experiencing major disruptions from e-commerce and the trend toward omnichannel experiences. Today, less than half of retail jobs (45 percent) involve working a cash register or providing customer service in a brick-and-mortar store. The fastest growing job opportunities are in the fields of information technology, management, transportation, and warehousing, all of which support retailers’ increasing need to diversify their channel strategies and keep pace with changing customer preferences.

Leaders must find ways to recruit and retain the right workforce, which is no easy feat. So, how can they do it? Given that an estimated 70 percent of people employed in the industry do not have an associate’s degree or higher, a good place to start is by investing in strategic education programs.

Employees Want Education Opportunities

Today’s restaurant workers have new expectations about workplace culture and career growth. Nearly two-thirds of employees (61 percent) say they value the opportunity for career advancement more than their current pay.

An InStride/Bain study found that not only are educational opportunities desirable, they can also enhance employee loyalty. Eight out of 10 people (80 percent) said they were interested in furthering their education while working and 70 percent of employees said they are more likely to stay with an employer that offers educational benefits.

Corporations already spend $177 billion annually on training and talent development. They earmark $28 billion to provide tuition reimbursement assistance to help people start or complete a college degree program. But these investments often don’t have the desired impact on improving employees’ skills, nor do they improve employee loyalty and retention.

It’s time for employers to rethink their approaches.

Strategic Education Drives Recruitment, Retention, and ROI

To start, leaders need to determine what skills their employees need most—both today and in the future. There must be strategic alignment between educational programs, learning outcomes, and business objectives to achieve success.

It’s also imperative to consider the educational delivery format. In some cases, internal workshops, seminars, and on-the-job training can be effective.

But companies looking to uplevel employees’ critical thinking skills or develop expertise in emerging areas, such as artificial intelligence, are often better served by providing other types of educational opportunities, such as high-school completion, short-form credentials or Associate, Bachelors or Graduate degree programs through public and private colleges and universities.

Starbucks is a great example of a pioneering company doing just that. In 2014, it launched the Starbucks College Achievement Plan (SCAP) with Arizona State University, giving eligible U.S. employees an opportunity to earn their first bachelor’s degree. Starbucks covers 100 percent of the tuition. Currently, more than 13,000 Starbucks employees are pursuing their degrees, and more than 3,000 people have graduated from the program.

Starbucks is seeing significantly higher retention rates and longer tenures for participants in the program. Additionally, according to Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson, 20 percent of new job applicants cite SCAP as one of their primary reasons for applying to work at the company.

Other companies in the industry are also making significant strategic investments. In October, Aramark launched its Frontline Education Program to provide the opportunity for eligible associates in the U.S. to receive tuition coverage for college degrees.

“We are committed to making this program as easy as possible for employees to access. This means removing possible barriers to entry and providing the support they need at each step of their educational journey,” says Lynn McKee, Aramark’s EVP, human resources.

The social and economic benefits of higher education are well-documented. One of the best ways to help restaurant workers advance is by giving them access to a high-quality degree that is universally valued. And a Lumina Foundation report found that for every dollar spent on an educational reimbursement program, the organization recouped it and saved an additional $1.29 in talent management costs—a 129 percent ROI. Imagine how significant the return can be when the program is aligned to a company’s core objectives.

Strategic learning and development programs can transform businesses, employees, and their communities. These are not just smart business decisions, but a movement that’s spreading across forward-thinking companies. The time has now come for more restaurants to start preparing their future workforces.

Vivek Sharma is the chief executive officer & founder of InStride, a global learning services enterprise reinventing the education of today’s workforce, by working with employers to provide opportunities for their employees to earn degrees and credentials from the highest-quality universities and collegesVivek Sharma is the chief executive officer & founder of InStride, the premier global provider of Strategic Enterprise Education. InStride enables employers to provide career-boosting degrees and credentials to their employees, through leading global academic institutions across the U.S., Mexico, Europe and Australia.

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