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Valerie Jarrett: Here’s How Retailers Should Help Build a Workforce for the Future

Retailers have been through tough challenges over the last year. And while a recovery appears to be taking hold, with sales showing impressive increases over 2019 levels, businesses have a fresh opportunity to keep the economy moving forward, Valerie Jarrett, former senior advisor to President Barack Obama, told the retail industry Monday.

Specifically, government and retailers must help close the skills gap, retailers must be mindful of their diversity and inclusion strategies, and leaders should stay aware that people’s shopping habits increasingly reflect their core social values, said Jarrett during a talk with NRF President and CEO Matthew Shay at the the group’s Retail Converge virtual event.

“The best thing to do is grow the economy and create more jobs, but it is a diminishing demand because of technology, and we haven’t yet solved that,” Jarrett said. “You cannot disconnect the economy from those who are the job creators — and that’s business.”

In discussing the skills gap, Shay recognized that there are 9.5 million unemployed people in the United States and 9.5 million available jobs, reflecting in part a “skills mismatch” that impacts retail as the nation’s largest private sector employer. He asked Jarrett how the Biden administration can help build a workforce of the future.

She said the talent conundrum, something recognized well before the pandemic and subsequent recession, is driven in part by women dropping out of the job market due to childcare that is too expensive or unavailable.

To help get more employees working in the retail market, people who are in school should be developing “the skills that they need for the jobs of tomorrow, not the jobs of yesterday,” she said. She pointed out that for retailers, “the level of expertise and technology savviness that’s required even to run a cash register today is very different than it was even 10 or 15 years ago.”

Jarrett asked: “As the technology improves and more and more jobs are unnecessary to do manually, what do we do with this growing workforce that doesn’t have the skills for the jobs of tomorrow, and even if they do have the skills, will we need the same number of jobs?”

To further help spur job creation, the business community and community colleges can partner with the Labor Department, the Department of Commerce — and state and local officials — to help with job training, said Jarrett.

“I think the business community putting pressure on the government and the intermediaries who provide this support and job training skill set is what we need to have happen, and that means we have to roll up our sleeves and get involved,” Jarrett said.

For example, businesses can help prepare and revise curriculum at colleges and community colleges so there are jobs waiting when people of all ages finish school.

To better help connect with their customers and workers, businesses must be open about where they stand on social issues, such as the Black Lives Matter movement and the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol.

“The younger generation of consumers are much more likely to shop their values,” said Jarrett. “They pay attention to whether or not businesses are socially responsible. Do they care about the environment, do they focus on diversity and inclusion?”

Business leaders, therefore, must respond to what shoppers and workers want — and become a part of solutions. Keeping an eye on supporting mentoring programs and causes like voter suppression are key areas businesses should keep in mind.

“We’re seeing positive movement in terms of activism, and it’s a result of pressure from both the workforce and from the customers, but also the sense that there’s a void out there,” Jarrett said. “Business leaders who care that our democracy is strong feel that they have to step into the void.”

Finally, when it comes to diversity and inclusion, “People are recognizing that diversity is a strength and a competitive advantage,” said Jarrett, who is on the board of Ralph Lauren.

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