To ensure a stable recovery, the hospitality and retail sectors—which historically employ high numbers of people of color, young adults, immigrants and entry-level workers—must find creative solutions to rebuild their workforces.

Matthew Penrod / NYC & Company

Shoppers at Rockefeller Center.

The holiday season normally means economic booms for New York City’s retail and hospitality sectors. The COVID-19 landscape, however, is unrecognizable. New York City may receive only one-third of the visitors it did in 2019, leaving hotel rooms, shopping centers and restaurants virtually empty. This could deal yet another blow to already suffering industries.

Nearly one-third of all New York City workers are now receiving unemployment, many of them retail and hospitality workers. While the retail and hospitality sectors have begun to bounce back, recovery has been uneven and does not always benefit the low-income workers who most need relief.  

To ensure a stable recovery, the hospitality and retail sectors, which historically employ high numbers of people of color, young adults, immigrants and entry-level workers, must find creative solutions to rebuild their workforces. The nonprofit I lead, Workforce Professionals Training Institute (WPTI), works to increase the effectiveness of people and programs that build pathways out of poverty through programs that provide job placement training, assistance and support.

We recently hosted two employer symposiums focused on these sectors. Workforce development professionals in New York City heard directly from employers about the pandemic’s impact on their businesses, what roles they’re hiring for now and how they see their sectors adapting and innovating going forward. Their recommendations can help guide the city to a robust—and equitable—economic recovery.

  • Embrace “non-traditional” roles: When people think of retail and hospitality jobs, they usually picture sales associates, cashiers, line cooks, concierges, and servers. It’s true that these jobs have taken a hit, but many retailers have seen a big increase in e-commerce sales since March and have since moved traditional retail workers to manage inventory or maintain online orders.

    Organizations have had to adapt their business models to meet the needs and challenges of the current moment, and with that comes new employment opportunities. Companies that can afford to pivot and hire workers who may have been displaced from their original jobs should do so. 
  • Anticipate areas of new demand: CVS, one of the employers represented in our retail employer symposium, has pivoted as demand for pharmaceutical care grows. CVS plans to hire 15,000 workers to prepare for expected increases in coronavirus and flu cases in the United States during the fall and winter months. This follows the most ambitious hiring drive in the company’s history in March.

    As flu season converged with an impending second wave of COVID-19 cases, the company knew that the demand on CVS’ pharmaceutical services would be more intense this year. Anticipating an unprecedented upswing, leadership employed a wave of full-time and part-time licensed pharmacy technicians at CVS Pharmacy locations to help administer COVID-19 tests, process prescriptions and dispense medications. The retail industry can learn from CVS’ example by anticipating potential market shifts and hiring accordingly.
  • Help employees see the career potential in retail and hospitality jobs: Many hospitality and retail roles attract entry-level workers because they offer some of the best paying jobs for people without college degrees. At the same time, these industries historically have extremely high turnover, which can disincentivize employers from investing in job training. Employers need to help entry-level employees see potential career paths they may not know exist, like inventory management and e-commerce website development, and encourage them to take advantage of educational or managerial advancement opportunities.
  • Soft skills remain critical: Strong interpersonal and customer service skills can play a huge role in setting applicants and employees up for success. The ability to maintain a positive and empathetic attitude, communicate well, think critically and present creative ideas is more valuable than ever as these industries innovate in real time. Millions of people who lost their jobs during the pandemic need to get back to work. Applicants who can show they have passion and drive in addition to technical skills stand out most.
  • Partner with the workforce development sector: Rebuilding the workforce in New York City and nationally will require the coordinated efforts of many sectors, including workforce development. Workforce training organizations provide low-income and marginalized communities with the skills, knowledge and employer networks needed to connect employers looking for skilled workers with applicants looking for well-paying careers with growth potential. By connecting employers to candidates with sufficient technical and soft skills, workforce development professionals can help organizations rebuild their workforces and fill the new kinds of roles the pandemic created. 

The pandemic exacerbated many social inequities, including access to employment opportunities. In addition to encouraging public officials to enact fiscal and economic policies that ensure the dignity of those whose jobs were lost, we need to provide jobseekers with the training and upskilling needed to meet changing demands. With thoughtful coordination between the public, private and nonprofit sectors, we can create a more sustainable and equitable workforce system that supports the retail and hospitality sectors on which New York City depends. 

Sharon Sewell-Fairman is the executive director of the New York City Workforce Professionals Training Institute (WPTI).