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Tension On The Front Lines: Low-Wage Workers Want Higher Pay And More Training, Not Bigger Titles.

The following piece was first published in Forbes.

Low-wage workers drove the record voluntary quit rates that defined the early days of the “Great Resignation,” switching to better jobs in industries raising wages. And they’re coveted in the current split-screen job market—where job opening rates remain highest in the food service, hospitality and heath-care sectors while layoffs mount among higher-paid workers in fields like finance and tech.

Yet despite that long-running script, employers still don’t seem to understand what frontline workers really want or how much help they need to navigate career opportunities at their companies, according to a new survey by McKinsey & Co. and Cara Plus, a division of the nonprofit Cara Collective.

The report, shared exclusively with Forbes, found that employers place too high a premium on “intangible benefits” such as employee recognition, time off and bigger job titles, the last of which ranked among the bottom five priorities for frontline workers but was near the top for surveyed managers.

As Andrew Davis, a partner in McKinsey’s retail practice, explains, “employers do over-index on certain things that don’t matter as much” to hourly workers.

In another example of a disconnect, employers ranked “supportive managers” as the most important aspect for career advancement, while frontline workers ranked it fifth. That could reveal managers’ own presumptions that low-wage workers value the same things they do. In an hourly role with high turnover rates or limited opportunities to interact with managers, the boss’s behavior may also reflect the reality that managerial training is less prioritized in frontline settings—or might not be as top of mind.

“The nature of frontline roles tend to be much more production-related,” said Sara Wasserteil, a managing director for Cara Plus. “Oftentimes, the incentives of the manager are [focused on] ‘you’ve got to go do your job’ versus ‘are they checking in on their team.’”

The report, which surveyed 2,154 hourly workers who make $22 or less per hour and 305 managers or H.R. leaders of frontline workers, comes at a time when more companies are recognizing that their path out of the labor shortage will likely involve both retaining and retraining low-wage workers. Another recent survey of 7,000 “deskless workers” by the Boston Consulting Group, for instance, found that 37% of these workers could leave their employers within the next six months.

The McKinsey-Cara report reinforced the fact that hourly workers are ambitious to move up the ladder. But two-thirds of frontline workers surveyed said they don’t know how to do it. The number was even higher among women, younger workers and those without a high school degree.

As employers remove college degree requirements from jobs that don’t need them, that increases the importance of investing in “upskilling” programs to move workers into higher-skilled roles and removing barriers to unemployment for underutilized groups such as those with a criminal record.

Giving extra support to those workers who need it most can have more impact than employers realize: The report found that frontline workers who had previously been homeless or “been involved in the criminal justice system” are 14 to 16 percentage points more likely than the average frontline worker to devote nonwork hours to improving their skills.

Employers and frontline workers did agree in the survey that pay and job growth opportunities were the top priorities. But the information channels and awareness of opportunities were quite different. While 41% of managers used company web sites to share information about career advancement, only 17% of frontline workers said they used such channels—or frequently discussed career advancement with colleagues.

That lack of awareness–and access–can extract a high cost. While 32% of employers said they offered tuition or outside education fee reimbursement, only 15% of the workers surveyed were aware of such benefits.

Workers at all levels want more tools and opportunities to advance their careers. Getting a shout-out from the boss or a gift card pales in comparison to online classes, coaching or real promotions that come with more responsibility—and tangible increases in pay.

“They’d rather say ‘give me an opportunity to take on a new responsibility,’ ” Davis says, than “getting an employee of the week [award] or a Starbucks card.” To keep hourly workers engaged, he adds, the starting point is transparency and communication. “There’s a huge opportunity for corporations to help them understand what support is out there for them.”