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5 Tips to Help Front-Line Workers of Color Advance in Their Careers

A barista working at a counter in a coffee shop.

​A new study by management consulting firm McKinsey & Co. shed light on the plight of employees of color who work in front-line positions.

The report found that 70 percent of Black and Hispanic employees in the U.S. are front-line workers. Many of these jobs lack health care benefits, don't pay a living wage and offer few opportunities for advancement.

"These workers are such a valuable part of a company's success, yet our research finds that there are significant challenges impacting the job experience of front-line workers, especially workers of color," said Monne Williams, co-author of the report and a partner with McKinsey.

Front-line workers include millions of low-wage employees in industries such as food services, manufacturing, transportation, maintenance and retail. The study did not include "front-line professionals," such as nurses and schoolteachers, who earn an average annual salary of $54,000.

Key findings include the following:

  • On average, Black and Hispanic front-line workers make 20 percent less than white front-line workers.
  • White front-line employees were most likely to receive advancement opportunities despite reporting the lowest desire for promotion.
  • Representation of employees of color decreases as the requirement for interpersonal skills in roles increases.
  • Black and Hispanic front-line workers report the lowest levels of sponsorship—nearly 60 percent have no sponsor at all.
  • The lack of performance management rigor in front-line work allows for greater subjectivity in deciding who gets promoted.

"These findings demonstrate that there is much progress to be made toward creating a more equitable employee experience," Williams said.

What Is a 'Gateway' Role?

The positions with the greatest opportunity for advancement are what McKinsey researchers call "gateway occupations," which allow workers to build skills and earn higher wages. These jobs include food service managers, HR specialists and radiologic assistants.

"We know from our research that all front-line occupations are not created equally," Williams said. "Getting front-line workers into these gateway occupations is critical for advancing employees of color into the middle class."

According to the report, gateway roles:

  • Offer multiple paths to jobs that pay more than $42,000 annually.
  • Are resilient to automation.
  • Help workers develop new skills or broaden existing skills that can lead to promotions or higher-paying jobs.

For example, a server in the food industry can increase their chances of obtaining higher-level jobs like an HR specialist or employee resource manager by transitioning into a gateway position such as a job-training specialist. And a customer service representative can move into a gateway job such as a front-line supervisor of production to eventually become a sales or distribution manager.

"What we see is that Black and Hispanic employees are underrepresented in the 'gateway' occupations that have better chances for advancement," Williams said.

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Overcoming Workplace Bias

How Can Employers Help?

McKinsey researchers stated that companies that truly invest in the front line can make these roles a starting point for a fruitful career, a clear path to the middle class and a way to transition to new jobs across industries.

Williams offered five tips for companies to help front-line workers of color accelerate their careers:

  • Formalize pathways for advancement from front-line to higher-level jobs.
  • Reward on-the-job experience rather than focusing on credentials.
  • Invest in mentors and sponsors for front-line workers.
  • Give a voice to front-line workers.
  • Hire front-line managers.

Promoting people of color makes a difference, according to Kimberly Lee Minor, founder and CEO of boutique firm Bumbershoot in Columbus, Ohio. She said the largest hurdle for front-line workers of color is the first promotion, after which the percentage of these employees in higher management roles falls to 35 percent and decreases by 50 percent at each subsequent management level.

"Many of my clients are retailers and food services, and all share similar statistics on their front lines," Minor explained.

She stated that many front-line roles are entry-level, and if the company doesn't have a training program, the job can become a dead-end position without a manager's commitment to the employees' professional growth.

"Unfortunately, stereotypes still play heavily in deciding who gets access to promotions," Minor said. "In other cases, managers select high-potential associates based on personal relationships, and humans usually build relationships with people they have something in common [with]."

In 2020, the Society for Human Resource Management outlined ways to create opportunities for workers of color, which can not only create a more inclusive environment but also improve recruitment and retention efforts.


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