Are You Ready for a World Without Menial Jobs?

Frontline Workers Repping Your Brand Need Tech Training

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After a ride with Uber, the buzzy new car service, the company's slick mobile app encourages you to rate the experience from one to five stars. Aaron Dignan, frustrated by his driver's unfamiliarity with his destination, recently tapped in three stars, the kind of middle-of -the-road score that kicks Uber's follow-up process into action.

Mr. Dignan received an email from a company rep asking about dissatisfaction. Uber offered a credit for a future ride and an assurance that his feedback would be given to the driver, who, like all Uber drivers, has his average rating displayed to customers.

The simple way to look at this sort of interaction is from the perspective of the startup optimizing the customer experience. Instead, try to see it from the driver's point of view. A job that was once simple and almost insulated from criticism -- I dare you to lodge a complaint with the bureaucratic nightmare of New York's Taxi & Limousine Commission or a grumpy dispatcher at an old-school car service -- is now subject to a real-time, technology-enabled response with serious stakes.

Welcome to the future of menial jobs. Feedback loops, uber-informed shoppers, productivity pressures and ubiquitous technological disruption are changing life on the job for millions of rank-and-file workers whose know-how -- or lack thereof -- is crucial to how brands lodge themselves in consumers' minds and hearts.

Despite all the talk of these workers being the frontline of the brand experience, too much of corporate America hasn't come to grips with this, preferring instead to treat that labor as a disposable commodity: bought in good times, slashed mercilessly in bad. Training is an afterthought, as is the kind of good treatment that makes workers valuable brand ambassadors willing to stick around.

Retail is a great example. An analysis of U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics by The Business Journals' On Numbers released last month found that retail employment in 45 states was still below 2008 levels. A 2010 McKinsey study of frontline managers found that only 11% fancied themselves a "coach," while 36 % thought "firefighter" best described their role.

There's been mounting evidence that having robust sales forces and treating those workers well pays off. A recent Harvard Business Review article, "Why Good Jobs Are Good for Retailers," offered a scathing critique of common, unproductive human-resources practices that keep costs down but harm sales and brand perception.

Even as menial workers are being treated worse, more is being asked of them in terms of education, knowledge and tech skills in a world where store clerks are starting to tote iPads in the aisles. A recent retail study from Deloitte queried executives on the most important employee traits in the near future. Their answer: tech-savvy, brand ambassadorship and specialized product knowledge. A far cry from working a folding board or swiping a credit card.

Another, very different kind of organization came up with similar findings. A few years back, the Ontario Literacy Coalition realized that something had changed among low-end jobs. Baristas were fixing Wi-Fi, hotel-cleaning staffs were using digital devices and factory-equipment upgrades were being slowed because of a lack of tech literacy among workers.

"Once we went in to work with employees in the workplaces, it was harder to figure out the types of skills they needed because they were using all sorts of basic-to-complex technology, whether PDA devices, computers, etc.," said Allison Mullin, manager of communications and marketing for the coalition. "Basically the jobs we assumed were "low skilled' weren't so low skilled after all -- they now require digital savvy and complex problem-solving."

This gave the coalition a name for a discussion paper and an educational program, "Menial No More." It's a wholly different way of framing the disjunction between job requirements and educational reality. Usually the focus is either on how the workforce is light on certain kinds of skilled jobs (think of the shortage of engineers that Steve Jobs famously complained about to President Barack Obama) or how many college graduates are languishing in unfulfilling jobs that don't put their education to work. What gets short shrift is how this "Reality Bites" reality could be improved to the benefit of both the employee and the company.

Mr. Dignan, CEO of Undercurrent and author of the book "Game Frame," has spent a lot of time thinking about how low-level employees can be better engaged. He posits that games can be used to keep employees motivated and inspired, especially once the 30-day learning window that begins when someone starts a job lapses and boredom sets in.

"For menial jobs, too often the career path isn't clear, or linear, or even existent," Mr. Dignan said in an interview. "Companies don't tell you what you need to do to move up." He recommends that companies begin "building a staircase that leads to something."

For a drugstore cashier, for example, that might mean spending the first three months doing the core job, then working to understand store traffic, then maybe, at month nine, folding in some customer-satisfaction responsibilities. Most retailers just send workers home during lulls in business and constantly fidget with schedules based on demand, disrupting home life and destroying morale. To Mr. Dignan, a good employee with nothing to do shouldn't be sent home, but put to work doing something else -- maybe updating the store Facebook page.

Think this is pie-in-the-sky? Think again. The successful Spanish supermarket chain Mercadona demands employee flexibility: Cleaners might work the registers, cashiers shelve items and department specialists deal with customers one minute and order merchandise the next. Refusing to cut workers' hours at the hint of a slowdown yields regular schedules that , coupled with above-average pay, instills employee loyalty.

But flexible staffs are only achieved through serious investment: According to a Harvard Business School case study, as of 2008 Mercadona's cost per employee was more than $9,000, and the training period was four weeks. In the U.S., by contrast, the average training period is seven hours.

Yet for all this investment, Mercadona stores offer low prices, possible in part because of a relatively limited product selection. Not stocking everything may sound like a deal-breaker to many consumers. But the business strategy is explained to patrons by -- you guessed it -- its employees on the floor, who are trained to do it.

In other words, Mercadona doesn't treat its menial employees as menial, which might just be the key to the company's success.

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