You interact with frontline workers every day. They’re the nurses and techs in your doctor’s office who care for you, the police officers and EMS first responders who keep you and your family safe, and the grocery store clerks who stock your produce and make sure your local market is clean. These individuals can’t work from home yet they’re essential to helping us have happy, healthy, and productive lives.
While these jobs have always been important, they’re finally getting the recognition they deserve: Headlines highlight the high-cost of neglecting low-wage workers, research from consulting companies advises businesses on how to attract and retain their workers, and academic studies show how frontline workers continue to make vital contributions beyond the pandemic.
It’s clear that there’s a critical need to support frontline workers, but there’s also a disconnect in opportunity and advancement for this workforce: These individuals don’t lack potential; they lack opportunity.
To unpack the disconnect, we spoke to dozens of frontline workers across industries to better understand what helps and hinders them in reaching their career goals. As a result, we’ve rounded up six myths and misconceptions about frontline workers, plus strategies for how you can empower your employees to achieve their full potential.
Myth 1: Their tenure is temporary.
As a group, frontline workers are somewhat more likely to describe their situations as temporary than knowledge workers. However, there are plenty of people pursuing long-term careers in hourly roles, even in what some may think of as unskilled work, and often by choice.
Takeaway: It’s a disservice to everyone to assume these employees are not worth investing in because they won’t be sticking around. The key is to understand the unique circumstances of each individual, which takes time and effort.
Myth 2: Frontline workers aren’t future-thinking.
Despite possible perceptions to the contrary, frontline workers think about their work/career journey as often as knowledge workers do. More than half reported considering it frequently or almost daily.
Takeaway: Frontline workers are looking for opportunities to grow and advance in their careers.
Myth 3: Frontline workers don’t want to learn new skills.
Frontline workers experience frustration when employers don’t invest in their skill growth and professional development. This makes them feel they are seen as “interchangeable” or “just a body”—not unique individuals. They feel their employer’s perceptions of them limit their access to learning opportunities.
Takeaway: Frontline workers value opportunities to learn new skills, face new challenges, and learn new responsibilities as much as knowledge workers. It’s worth investing in their growth.
Myth 4: They don’t value time with their managers.
Frontline workers often have fewer opportunities to interact 1:1 with their managers than knowledge workers. This is especially true when it comes to discussing their career growth. This can make it challenging for them to show what they excel at and reveal where their growth interests lie. Also, the nature of the relationship and the environment can be an obstacle to the employee taking the lead here.
Takeaway: Frontline workers appreciate and value managers who take the time to discover and support their goals for their work journey.
Myth 5: Frontline workers avoid new responsibilities.
An accumulation of the factors mentioned above can lead hourly workers to feel pigeon-holed or trapped in their current roles. They often feel they’re in one of two scenarios:
- No one sees their potential and what they can do or be, beyond their current role.
- They’re so proficient in their roles that the company is happier for them to stay in that position rather than promote them.
For example, one employee has stayed at his manufacturing company for nearly 40 years. He knows it’s a good company, but he’s realized that there are few opportunities to move up into senior or management roles. He’s willing to stay another year or so to see what happens but will then start looking elsewhere. In the meantime, he’s preparing himself by growing his skills.
Takeaway: Companies will lose valuable employees if they don’t provide opportunities for growth and advancement, even if those employees are otherwise happy.
Myth 6: All frontline roles require “physical” work.
Often, frontline workers must grapple with the physical consequences of their work in a way knowledge workers typically don’t. Some concerns center around the likelihood of injury, or deterioration of physical health because of long-term employment in their field. Others expressed doubts about their ability to continue to do their chosen work as they age, simply because they may no longer be able keep up with its physical nature.
Takeaway: With worker shortages and so many older generation individuals eligible to retire, organizations should identify and create growth paths to recognize loyalty and maturation in frontline roles, particularly for roles that could be more flexible and less physically demanding. There are creative ways to recognize seniority of experience, build in mentorship opportunities, develop skills in subject matter expertise, or develop customer support growth paths. It’s as simple as talking to your frontline workers and understanding their needs to improve their work experience and advance their expertise.
The bottom line: Investing in your frontline workers will pay dividends
It’s worth investing in your frontline workers—they’re looking for opportunities to grow and thrive in their careers:
- They want to stay at their companies long-term.
- They want to grow and advance their careers.
- They want to learn new skills.
- They value time with their manager to discuss career opportunities.
- They welcome new responsibilities.
- They seek creative and flexible ways to keep up with the physical demands of their roles.
If you’re ready to remove the disconnect between opportunity and advancement and empower your frontline employees, check out the Frontline Worker Playbook. You’ll learn tangible actions to support your employees both personally and professionally.