How to Solve Your Frontline Talent Shortage

frontline workers

If you've ever watched an endurance event, you've seen people compete for the long haul. At Colorado's annual Leadville Trail 100,  participants run the Rocky Mountains for as many as 30 hours.

Thirty. Hours.

These days, people don't do things they like for thirty hours. I'm a runner myself, and I can't fathom it. What would possess someone to run for that long?

The Power of Purpose

The answer, not surprisingly, is purpose. People can do almost anything - even something repetitive and challenging - if they feel like they're working toward some reward.  There simply has to a personal reason to stick it out.

In the current era of 3.9% unemployment, HR should be thinking about purpose...a lot. It's easy to throw up your hands in today's talent market and presume that turnover is inevitable - especially on the frontlines where jobs are by nature repetitive, and churn is higher than it's been in two decades. Gallup says the culprit is uninspiring work, with only a small fraction of the globe's population in so-called "great" jobs that engage them.  But is the answer really just about the individual job?

We have research that says, no. What we learned from our Dream Company study is that people will stay in a position that's less than their dream job if they feel great about the employer behind it. And a top element of that Dream Company recipe is career development. One only has to look at the Boston Marathon example to see why.

How Top Employers are Filling Frontlines

Career development - specifically education and designated pathways that let people see where the road leads -- imparts purpose. This shouldn't shock anyone who's looked at why people select jobs. Even those coming out of college don't always know exactly what they want to do in life. It makes sense that they'd choose a less-than-ideal job as a starting point, as long as it's at a company with a great reputation and possibilities. Employers are getting wise; just look at the number of high-profile companies (particularly frontline-driven companies) making news by expanding tuition benefits workforce wide. Today, whole advertising campaigns are built around "the company is behind you" message, celebrating proud students graduating on the companies' dime.

And they're seeing results.  At one of our clients with a critical call-center operation, a flat-rate tuition assistance program for all employees has been part of a strategy that, the company told Fortune, helped drop call-center turnover to 23%, considerably lower than the 43% national average.  At Aetna, another one of our tuition clients, an enhanced tuition program increased retention by almost 8% in just a few years.

But you have to know your audience. Frontlines aren't just customer-facing but also support services; the resources and systems required to efficiently serve those customers. And not all of them - people or jobs - are best served by degrees. Creating education assistance that's exclusively degree oriented isn't going to get you far if you have employees who need and want very specific and immediate skills.

Guarding Against Frontline Talent Attrition

And there's something else. Frontline employees are not only important - they also have easily transferrable skills. The good ones can pack up and go anywhere. If you don't off the career pathways, they are looking for somebody else does. And right now, they've got lots of options.

"How do we guard against attrition when the company across the street dangles something shiny?" wrote Lucy English, one of the lead researchers on the Dream Company study.  "Our research shows that if employees feel that they're working in a Dream Company, they are 11 times more likely to stay in their organization." In other words, give them a map for the future, and they'll keep running with you for the whole event.

Written by: Alan Robins

December 5, 2018

About the Author

Alan Robins at Bright Horizons

As Director of Product Marketing, Alan drives original research and thought leadership for Bright Horizons education benefits programs, drawing on his extensive experience helping companies optimize education programs to support their Talent and HR objectives. Prior to Bright Horizons, Alan was at Gartner, a global leader in providing advisory services to technology and business executives, where he led new product teams in Europe and the US.