The on-hand staff can either be a physical retailer’s greatest asset or their biggest liability – depending on the skill set of the sales associate. At best, knowledgeable people readily available to answer questions and make useful suggestions contribute to creating the in-store experience that online commerce has a hard time replicating.
Amazon can recommend things based on your previous purchases and Amazon’s algorithm can do a good job – if not an inspired one.
A good store clerk, on the other hand, can take a shopper who walked into a store totally unaware of the existence of a certain brand, product, book or look and have that same shopper walk out of the store a lifelong customer who cannot imagine living without what they were turned on to that day.
The flipside of that coin, however, is that Amazon’s algorithm rarely insults anyone out of future eCommerce purchases. But a really bad sales person can take an enthusiast and run them off for life.
It is actually hard to underestimate how much physical retail needs good in-store employees — however most in-store employees are entry-level workers with various levels of skill, education and background doing anything, never mind offering good service.
And, the Great Recession and the great unemployment hike in the U.S. certainly created no shortage of people looking for work. However, as LearnUp’s founder and CEO Alexis Ringwald noted, people looking for work and employers in need of workers are not necessarily a match made in heaven – but not because all, or even most, of the jobs available in the market require unusual or highly complicated skills.
"What I saw most clearly with everyone I met, and I think I met everyone — people with Yale law degrees, ex-Cisco engineers, truck drivers, executive assistants, fast food workers, nannies — universally, across the board they all had some kind of a skills gap, or found that their skills were out of sync with the needs of the job market right now. But they didn’t know it at all,” Ringwald noted.
"And it wasn’t their fault they didn’t know. People apply incessantly to a lot of places,” she said. “But they never hear back. They’re always unqualified. There’s no clear pathway into a job."
Ringwald did not start her career as an expert in retail or staffing. She was a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who sold off her first business – an energy management software firm called Valence – and was looking for a new project.
She found that touring the unemployment lines of Central California, where she found thousands of intelligent, motivated people who were not successfully clicking with the job market, a large swatch (three-quarters) of open jobs looking for entry level (high school degree) applicants and a mounting number of employers frustrated by their inability to connect with the right hires – especially retailers.
"What was obvious as we were launching in 2012 was that something had fundamentally broken in the marketplace for jobs and job seekers – and that we could really help by focusing in on very basic entry-level positions in retail, financial services, and customer service,” Ringwald noted.
LearnUp is a fairly straightforward concept — users sign up, create a profile and are given the option to view various employers with open positions, as well as suggested trainings that go with each position.
"Trainings vary, depending on which merchant partner is being highlighted,” Ringwald noted, “they might be short video, or articles. Staples has prospective applicants watch a YouTube video on QuickBooks, read a Harvard Business School article or watch a TEDTalk – really it can vary."
As users go through the modules, they build a virtual resume. The model LearnUp is pursuing, Ringwald explains, is their vision of the “LearnUp Ladder,” which will provide a demonstrable way for dedicated job seekers to get an online education for anyone wanting to learn entry-level and management skills in retail or banking.
LearnUp also helps applicants apply to listed positions – making sure that hiring managers actually see (and can note the distinctions of) LearnUp applicants. Apart from Staples, The Gap, Whole Foods, and AT&T are among the high profile names that have partnered with LearnUp.
Last week the firm increased its roster with the formal addition of Gap Inc’s most successful retail brand: fast fashion forerunner Old Navy.
"We have been so impressed with Old Navy’s foresight into the role technology can play in empowering workers. We are proud to partner with Old Navy to offer an unprecedented number of job seekers access to free online education and coaching for placement in retail careers,” Ringwald wrote. “When workers are provided the opportunity to learn in advance, they not only increase their chances of employment, but employers gain access to quality hires who perform better and stay longer. By leveraging technology to educate workers in job-specific skills at scale, this partnership represents a new model for economic empowerment and opportunity in America.”
Gap Inc. estimates that the new partnership will connect 200,000 people to the LearnUp training platform.
"Gap Inc. cares about creating opportunities for people to grow and advance their careers. This new, expanded partnership between Old Navy and LearnUp will help us recruit retail-ready employees who can help us continue to delight our customers while empowering the next generation of leaders for retail,” said Leslie Anderson, Senior Director of HR for Old Navy.
In a world where consumers can easily shop and bank online – the right employees in store can be critical in actually attracting the consumer to the physical retail experience. The lesson of LearnUp is that the marketplace is full of people who are committed enough to offering that experience they are willing to learn about it on their off time.
"The marketplace is changing, and will continue to do so. I think the best thing we can continue to do with the changing job market is keep training workers and having them acquire new skills at the pace at which work is changing, whether that’s in retail or banking,” Ringwald noted.