Building the Next Generation of Frontline Workers: How the Leaders of Today Can Ensure a Bright Future for Essential Industries

March 8, 2022 Watermark Insights

During the global pandemic, we’ve witnessed essential workers — healthcare professionals, police officers, and firefighters, to name a few — risking their health to provide the care and service Americans need. As the past year has shown us all, frontline workers are crucial to our country’s continued success.

While frontline leaders and managers have a duty to create work environments that support the development and growth of our next generation of essential workers, they’re not alone in this endeavor. Community colleges and two-year institutions also play a key role in helping blaze career paths in frontline work. As USA Today reports, community colleges typically train students to directly enter frontline careers like nursing upon graduation. These community college-educated workers contribute hundreds of billions of dollars to the US economy every year.

The path to professional success can be difficult for community college students. As USA Today notes, many are first-generation college students. They’re more likely to come from lower-income families, more likely to be single parents, and more likely to be working while attending school. To ensure each of these students has an equal opportunity for success, many community colleges are leveraging technology-enabled higher education equity solutions to provide personalized guidance and support to their students. As should be evidence, community colleges go to great lengths to give their students a solid foundation for building their frontline careers.

But once students graduate and enter the essential workforce, leaders and managers have to pick up where community college left off. If we want to ensure a thriving frontline workforce for years to come, leaders must invest in their employees the same way community colleges invest in their students. That means ensuring your workers have the tools, support, and opportunities they need to succeed.

Offer Continued Skills Development and Training

Frontline workers are often described as less educated and paid lower wages, which creates negative perceptions around careers we desperately need in this country. According to "A Guide to Upskilling America’s Frontline Workers,” a report from Deloitte and the Aspen Institute, America’s 24 million frontline workers have few if any opportunities for career mobility. This can deter many talented college students from choosing a career in frontline industries. While some community colleges are offering tuition-free programs for frontline workers, we frontline leaders need to do our part once these employees enter our workplaces.

According to research from IBM, employees are 12 times more likely to leave their jobs when they don’t feel they can achieve their career goals at their current company. By failing to invest in the continued development of their employees, leaders in essential industries risk losing their workers and becoming short-staffed. Moreover, they make it harder for their organization to attract new frontline workers, who may choose to pursue jobs at companies that offer more training opportunities.

As leaders, it is our responsibility to confront the negative stereotypes surrounding frontline work and provide opportunities for our employees to expand their knowledge skill sets. By providing meaningful professional development and training opportunities, leaders can not only attract more workers to frontline careers but also open doors to growth, success, and vertical mobility for their current employees.

Let’s look at the nursing industry as an example. Many hospitals will pay for their employees to attend nursing school through tuition reimbursement programs. This is done in an attempt to retain valued employees, as well as allow frontline workers to further their education and grow within the industry. A workplace gains significant value from this kind of investment in employee development. Not only are you upskilling your workforce, but employee retention and satisfaction rates are also likely to improve. Taken together, all of this contributes to improved overall organizational performance.

Cultivate a Leadership Mentality

In the “2020 Future of Leadership Global Executive Study and Research Report” from MIT Sloan Management Review, just 12 percent of survey respondents strongly agreed their companies’ leaders had the right mindsets to lead their organizations forward. As leaders in essential industries, we need to take a critical look in the mirror and ask ourselves: Are we being the best leaders we can be? What can we do better to ensure our employees have confidence in our leadership — and in their own ability to be the leaders of the next generation?

Frontline work is not for the faint of heart. Jobs on the frontlines require employees to ditch their fixed mindsets in favor of a leadership mentality that is more flexible and growth-oriented. Many community colleges are putting a heightened focus on helping students reshape their limited outlooks on themselves, their intelligence, and their goals. We, as leaders, need to continue cultivating this mindset in the workplace to help our employees become leaders in their own right.

The term “essential workers:” speaks for itself. These careers are and will always be the backbone of our country. It is our job as leaders of essential businesses to build the next generation of frontline workers by continuing to invest in both our current employees and those who may look to join our industries in the future.

This article was originally published on on April 14, 2021.

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