By: Leslie G. Sarasin, President and CEO, Food Marketing Institute

the-great-american-milk-drive_somerville-ma--dairy-farmer-greets-a-customerWhat was your first job? My most memorable opportunity as a young person was serving as an intern in the local Glasgow, KY, office of the Kentucky Department for Social Services, which is the state agency addressing issues of child well-being, including foster care and adoption. This experience was tremendously enlightening for me on several levels, but particularly since it opened my eyes to many previously unfamiliar aspects of my community.

Fortunately for me, these summer internships in Kentucky prepared me for my career in the food industry, where I have been able to apply my learned skills and direct empathy when it is needed most. As leaders, we all started somewhere. The food retail industry is a noted provider of first-job opportunities for young workers. Many of these employees transition their first roles in a supermarket into a steppingstone for a future career in grocery, retail, sales – or even a different industry. Regardless of where their career path takes them, those who have the chance to take advantage of these early-in-life job openings will forever utilize the life-long important social skills and business behaviors learned in a grocery store as a teenager. This is evidenced by the fact that many of our FMI Board members began their careers as baggers and inventory clerks. From that first job their dedication to the company and greater community enabled them to rise through the ranks, placing them at the deserved helm of the food retail company they now serve.

Legislation that passed last week on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives puts 362,000 jobs for future food retail leaders in jeopardy. The Raise the Wage Act (H.R. 582) permanently eliminates the youth training wage, removing incentives for employers to hire and train young people. If that number seems small, consider that only about 6.9 million young people are currently employed in the U.S. job market and the number of youths in the workplace has fallen sharply in the past two decades. About one-third of school-aged youth now work compared to over 40% in 2005. 

I won’t speculate whether this drop in youth employment is a good or bad thing, but I do know that stripping away the best employment opportunities youth have open to them is definitely NOT contributing positively to this situation. The pending legislation’s unwanted consequence of permanently eliminating the youth wage would come at a particularly challenging time for our nation’s youth. As many as 57 to 75 million people in the workforce are already part of the new Gig Economy, according to various data reported by The Food Institute. And, over the next few decades, more and more of the nation’s young workers will be joining that economy as well. 

Arguably, we need the younger generation more than ever for their pronounced digital inclinations. The food industry expects its biggest growth opportunities and investments to be in ecommerce and technology. According to an annual operations analysis by FMI, in the next two years, the biggest increases in labor allocations are expected to be for online purchase fulfillment, at 67%, and data analytics, at 64%. While knowing the right algorithm can certainly inform a shopper’s desire, Gen Z also has a tremendous capacity for enhancing the in-store experience than do the automated solutions this legislation encourages.

Personal connections are inherent to the businesses FMI represents and they are played out in the retail aisles each day. Even with shifting channel preferences, a shopper will likely visit his or her favorite retail banners 4.4 times per month. Those experiences are heightened by a kind gesture, a convenient suggestion or just making grocery shopping easier to meet families’ changing needs. Young people embrace these opportunities. 

While we firmly believe the U.S. Senate will not take up the legislation, FMI will continue to advocate for allowing employers the option to pay youth wages. We encourage those with similar stories to share their experiences, particularly as our nation’s youngest workers face such a challenging and rapidly changing economic environment. We look forward to your input and engaging with us to help preserve the future workforce.