Thrive Chicago: Changing the Conversation Around Retail Employment

Dywaine Betts

A youth’s biggest transition into adulthood, is shifting from high school into the oftentimes scary, “Real World.” From college to studying a trade to entering public service or the military to landing full-time employment, there are many paths that a teenager can take, depending on the resources available. 

For the graduating class of 2020, Chicago Public Schools is doing something a little different to get students ready for this decision: they will be implementing Learn.Plan.Succeed, which mandates every high school student develop a post-secondary plan before being allowed to graduate successfully. With the guidance of a counselor, students will discuss their options for after graduation. A third of teens in the US are working, 30% of high school graduates start careers immediately after graduation, and 77% of part-time college students are also clocking in1. The majority of those working are employed in retail and service sectors, and in 2016, retail alone accounted for 55% of youth employment.

Through Learn. Plan. Succeed, Chicago is already doing important work to promote various pathways for students after high school. Because we want to take this work a step forward,  Thrive Chicago is teaming up with The YES Project at America’s Promise to host an Action Roundtable that convenes Reimagine Retail Chicagoland, CAEL (Council for Adult and Experiential Learning), Chicago Public Schools, City Colleges of Chicago, the Cook County Workforce Partnership, and employers in the retail sector to change the narrative around retail, especially for school counselors and college advisors. Too many times, I’ve heard the retail sector spoken about as a dead end or a last resort, when the reality is that most of us have had our first tastes of employment in retail. There are pathways in retail that can lead to IT, logistics, management, HR, marketing, and other opportunities—pathways that can lead to a career with a livable wage and longevity. I believe young people would feel they had more options in retail if they knew about the pathways associated.

We will bring to the forefront, Norman E. Clark, a retail expert with over 20 years of experience in high-end luxury retail, has an inspiring story of navigating through retail positions from Speedo to Tiffany’s and beyond. We will also shine a spotlight on the National Retail Federation and their RISE Up curriculum created to help build the retail industry’s next generation of talent by teaching retail industry fundamentals and customer service & sales in an engaging, immersive way. 

With this roundtable, we hope to better the knowledge and approach of community-based organizations when it comes to employer engagement, while teaching them the right questions to ask when engaging retail employers about pathways. We also will work to inform high school counselors about programs, credentialing, and apprenticeships that exist to serve as options for young adults who want to go directly into full-time employment, while helping educate community college advisors on how they can guide a young adult in college to the correct courses to set them on a journey in retail. Overall, we would like to hear about the positions available, programs existing currently, and the process of promotion and overall pathways from retail employers themselves.

This roundtable will serve an important need in the Chicago community by bringing together youth, community-based organizations, the education system, and the workforce system to improve youth outcomes around employment in the retail sector and better prepare and propel youth forward.