It’s time for food retailers to follow Walmart’s lead and look at nontraditional labor pools.
Column: Ahead of What's Next
My first language is not English. As the U.S.-born daughter of Cuban-born immigrants, I spoke only Spanish until I entered Kindergarten. So I was happy to see Walmart announce that it would make English-language learning a part of its new $1 billion strategy to hire and retain more workers amid an acute labor shortage.
It’s no secret that food retailers are in a crazy fight for workers right now. The labor participation rate is down 3% since before the pandemic, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). In August, a record 4.3 million people quit their jobs. Retail employees in particular are quitting in droves; almost two in five workers (38%) who quit in August worked in retail or in restaurants and hotels, according to BLS.
The reasons for the Great Resignation in Retail are diverse, complicated and even controversial. Last month, Axonify’s annual “Global State of Frontline Work Experience Study” reported that retail workers say that burnout (63%) is a more important motivating factor for resigning than compensation (50%), with grocery workers citing 56% burnout. In response, food retailers such as Natural Grocers; Schnuck Markets; PCC Community Markets; Amazon; our Retailer of the Year, Dollar General; and many others have been dangling higher wages, time off and extra benefits at job candidates and employees.
But none of this may be enough to close the labor gap.
Growing the Talent Pool
It’s time for food retailers to follow Walmart’s lead and look at nontraditional labor pools. One of those pools is people with limited or no English-language skills, like so many of my family members. One out of every 10 working-age adults in the United States has limited English-language proficiency, according to the National Immigration Forum. The Center for Economic and Policy Research reports that 15.7% of grocery workers are foreign-born, many with limited English proficiency.
“We have this ‘talent shortage,’ and I really think we’re just thinking about talent the wrong way,” says Dr. Katie Nielson, founder and chief education officer of Voxy Engen, which has partnered with Walmart and Tyson to teach workers foundational English skills. “If retailers think about hiring non-English speakers for jobs and training them to get the English skills they need for those jobs, we’ll have a much larger talent pool to choose from.”
According to Nielson, there are more than 2 million immigrants in the United States who are underemployed or unemployed.
“We’re working with Tyson Foods, and we are creating content specifically for the needs of their workers,” she says. “So, for example, if a food retailer needs people to be able to follow a shopping list for an online order and understand the English to read the list and pick the items, we can teach that English.”
To attract workers from nontraditional pools such as those with limited English skills, Nielson says that food retailers need to look at the accuracy of job descriptions. They also need to look at their “internal talent pool to see if there are barriers to promotion and advancement that could be removed, because often an internal education program is more effective than trying to do the recruitment process to look for new workers.”
To overcome the Great American Labor Shortage, food retailers must get a lot more creative than an extra dollar an hour or an extra 5% on the employee discount. They must invest in nontraditional ways. Offering workplace English education can open career paths for current workers and attract new workers to join the diverse workforce that has become America’s lifeblood.