PROJECTFrontline Retail Workers’ Advancement

The retail industry employs almost 16 million people in the US, or just over 10 percent of all US workers. And many people begin their working years in retail jobs: over 60 percent of all US  workers held a frontline retail job early in their careers.i As such, the sector has the potential to provide workers with opportunities to advance their careers. Workers in frontline retail jobs can develop foundational skills and work experience that can help them advance in retail or in another sector.ii Case studies have demonstrated that for workers with the right skills and experience, a career in retail can “offer a pathway to a middle-class life.”iii  Pathways and opportunities for frontline retail workers to advance are important, and many employers and their partners are exploring strategies to increase retention and advancement in the retail sector.

About This Project

This project aims to better understand opportunities to support the advancement of frontline workers in the retail sector through an analysis of publicly available survey data and interviews with leading retail employers.

What Do the Data Say?

An August 2019 report shows the diversity among frontline retail workers by providing information on characteristics, circumstances, and early career advancement.  The report highlights opportunities to support advancement for key subgroups who may be well positioned to take advantage of advancement opportunities, including women in the middle of their careers, early-career frontline workers, workers who have long job tenure in retail, and part-time retail workers who want to work full time . Training and advancement strategies for frontline workers in retail should focus on the skills that are most important for retail supervisor jobs, where the gaps relative to the requirements for frontline retail jobs are largest. Workers may acquire some of these skills on the job, but others may require more structured employer-based or outside education and training.

What Strategies Are Employers Using to Support Advancement?

A June 2021 report documents how retailers design, implement, and think about approaches to advancement for workers on the front lines. Interviews with 16 large retailers revealed the importance of deliberate strategies to help frontline workers advance and strengthen their business’s performance. These include setting up systems to understand people and pathways, preparing local managers to champion and support advancement, elevating and planning for advancement opportunities, providing meaningful training opportunities, and tailoring educational assistance.

Moving Forward

Both reports provide insight into how diverse frontline retail workers are and how they could advance if provided the pathways and opportunities. These reports also lay the groundwork for the importance of getting other stakeholders, such as including policymakers, education and training providers, the public workforce system, and national and local industry groups, involved to support frontline retail workers’ advancement.

Learn More


Frontline Workers in the Retail Sector: A Profile of Characteristics for Advancement

Moving Up: Talent Strategies for Retail Businesses to Help Frontline Workers Advance

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How Can Retail Businesses Help Frontline Workers Advance?


i Authors’ calculation from analysis for this study using National Longitudinal Survey of Youth data.

ii A survey of hiring managers found that 69 percent say the retail industry equips employees with a wide variety of skills and experience, and 72 percent say it provides its employees with job skills training. See National Retail Federation, "Retail's Value on a Resume: How Jobs in Retail Prepare America's Workforce for Success" (Washington, DC: National Retail Federation, 2015).

iii Jeffrey Dorfman, "Retail Industry Wages: Getting the Facts Straight" (Washington, DC: National Retail Federation Foundation, 2014)

Tags Employment Racial inequities in employment
Policy Centers Income and Benefits Policy Center