Race in the workplace: The frontline experience

Three of four frontline workers want to be promoted, but less than one in four achieves it. Companies can take targeted actions to better support these workers.

The vast majority of Americans are introduced to the workforce through frontline jobs—whether waiting tables, stocking store shelves, or folding clothes. Approximately 70 percent of the current US workforce is concentrated in frontline jobs. 1 Too often, however, frontline jobs are both a starting point and an end point for workers. Our research found this challenge is especially true for frontline workers of color, who face an array of impediments to moving up the ladder. 

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This report shines a light on the experiences of frontline workers of color, the pathways from the front line to the middle class, and the skills workers need to advance. It also offers steps companies could take to improve job quality and better support frontline workers of color to develop and progress in their careers.

The frontline experience for workers of color

With 112 million workers, the frontline workforce is massive but not a monolith. Frontline professionals (for example, school teachers and registered nurses) number 17 million workers who earn an average annual salary of $54,000. 2 Frontline hourly and salaried roles (such as retail salespeople, cooks, and store managers) are filled by 95 million workers who earn an average annual income of $33,000. Our research focused on this second category.

The front line is a vital part of nearly all sectors of the economy. They are the public face of many organizations, working in industries from healthcare to transportation and logistics to foodservice. They make tremendous contributions to the US economy, including carrying the nation through the pandemic. Yet despite these contributions, frontline workers experience the greatest hardship from economic disruption.

Workers of color, who are overrepresented in the US frontline workforce, feel these challenges more acutely than their White counterparts. At many companies, frontline roles are a revolving door with low pay and little advancement, leaving workers of color without a path to move up the ladder. As a result, more employees of color are in roles with lower job quality (for example, jobs that lack healthcare benefits or don’t pay a living wage 3 ).

Our research found employees in frontline roles report the worst experience. Frontline hourly employees are nearly 20 percent less likely than corporate employees to believe that DEI policies are effective (Exhibit 1). Just one-third of workers in the bottom 10 percent of income had jobs with paid sick leave. 4 In addition, 45 percent of hourly employees don’t believe their company encourages them to take advantage of work-life policies (for example, leave of absence and parental leave) without jeopardizing their employment or career advancement. These factors have a dramatic influence on their job experience and views of their company.

US companies’ diversity, equity, and inclusion programs aren’t reaching the frontline hourly workforce, compared with other groups.
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Frontline workers of color do not feel included in the workplace

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Frontline hourly employees report the lowest overall feelings of inclusion 5 of all employees in the workforce, and differences in inclusion emerge as they climb the corporate ladder (Exhibit 2). While all groups feel more connected at higher levels of their organization, Black employees experience lower inclusion than their peers at most levels. This pattern essentially sets up a no-win situation for Black frontline workers: shared stressors in the front line or feelings of isolation as they move up the ladder.

Differences in inclusion are generally felt more strongly as US employees climb the corporate ladder, especially for Black employees.
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‘We’ve had some really bright, talented Black individuals, but the culture just will not allow them to advance in positions that are beyond the bottom of the totem pole.’

Race in the workplace: The frontline experience

Fast facts

  • 13 percent of the frontline workforce
  • Top industries: healthcare support, protective services, and community and social services

Our Race in the Workplace Survey found that among all frontline staff, Black workers have the largest enterprise trust deficit—defined as a gap in perception on attributes such as acceptance, fairness, and authenticity.

This trust deficit affects nearly every facet of the Black frontline experience. For example, Black workers report the highest job satisfaction and lowest intention to leave. Yet they also experience the highest attrition rates. What is causing them to look to other organizations for opportunities? For many, it’s a lack of career development and advancement potential. Fully 84 percent of Black employees indicated a desire to be promoted, but just 62 percent perceived an opportunity to advance.

They also don’t view their work environment as a meritocracy. A contributing factor is that Black frontline workers earn on average 25 percent less than their White peers.

The lack of trust manifests itself in numerous ways. Black workers are less likely to feel supported, encouraged, and treated as professional equals by their peers. Fifty-one percent of Black employees have at least one mentor, but just 38 percent said they have at least one sponsor, meaning many Black workers lack valuable direction and support on career paths and development opportunities. In addition, Black frontline employees report feeling included in the workplace less than any other racial group.

As poor as the experience is for Black frontline workers, it also represents a high-water mark. As they move up the ladder, they report feeling less included and supported than their peers.

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Frontline hourly workers perceive a pervasive lack of fairness in promotions

Our research explored the perceptions of frontline hourly employees regarding fairness and transparency in promotions. They are more likely than their salaried peers to feel their organization is inconsistent when it comes to promoting employees on merit and performance (Exhibit 3). Just 39 percent of hourly respondents believe their employer takes an objective, empirical view of performance and promotion. In addition, our analysis highlighted frontline workers of color want to advance but lack access to opportunities by a sizable margin compared with White workers.

US frontline employees paid hourly report inconsistencies in recognition and promotion based on merit and performance.
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Fast facts 1

  • 5 percent of frontline workforce
  • Top industries: Accommodation and foodservice, manufacturing, healthcare

At first glance, Asian frontline workers appear to be poised for rapid advancement. They have the highest levels of education: 21 percent have earned at least a bachelor’s degree, compared with 16 percent of White workers, 10 percent of Black workers, and 8 percent of Latino workers. They also report higher levels of inclusion than other workers of color and are more likely to believe their workplace is fair and impartial.

Yet despite these advantages, Asians must overcome many of the same challenges as other workers of color: They consistently make less money than their White peers for the same job. They don’t feel supported, with more than half lacking a sponsor. And they report the highest levels of burnout among all frontline employees.

Moreover, Asian workers are often stereotyped as being diligent and quiet, perceptions that could be a factor preventing them from moving into management positions. 2 They experience a steady decline in representation by level, falling from 9 percent of frontline hourly roles to 5 percent of salaried positions.

The picture is complicated further by the fact that Asian workers represent a diverse array of nationalities and subgroups, 3 each with its own distinct experience. For example, Southeast Asians report some of the lowest inclusion scores, while East and South Asians report among the highest.

Companies seeking to devise effective programs and provide support for Asian workers must dig beneath the top-line classifications to truly understand the specific challenges each subgroup faces.

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Workers of color are held back by low levels of sponsorship

The level of support that workers receive on the job can have a direct impact on their career prospects. Our research found more than half of all frontline employees of color have at least one mentor in the workplace—in line with their White peers. But these relationships aren’t translating into sponsorships (Exhibit 4). Black and Latino frontline employees report the lowest levels of sponsorship: the majority (nearly six in ten) have no sponsor at all, with Black frontline employees seeing especially low levels.

For US frontline Black and Latino employees, mentorship is not translating to sponsorship.
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This pattern appears to have a direct impact on career advancement. Our analysis found employees are five times more likely to get a promotion if they have four or more sponsors. In effect, every sponsor translates to a roughly 10 percent increase in an employee’s chance of getting a promotion.

Fast facts

  • 14 percent of frontline workforce
  • Top industries: Agriculture, construction, and forestry, fishing, and hunting

Latino workers, who are more likely than any other race to be in frontline roles, face several daunting challenges when it comes to careers. They have the second lowest wages of all groups, earning 22 percent less than White frontline workers, in part because of the occupations in which they are concentrated. They are the largest immigrant group of any race, with 85 percent of immigrants on the front line. 1 They also have the lowest education levels of any race: just 36 percent have some postsecondary schooling.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Latino frontline employees don’t feel included or supported on the job: they are significantly less likely than White employees to believe their employer allows self-expression and has adequate protective mechanisms in place. In greater numbers than other groups, Latino frontline employees cite a lack of support for employee well-being as a key reason for leaving their jobs. They also report the second-lowest level of sponsorship, a crucial element in advancement.

Despite these challenges, Latino employees in our sample have achieved a higher share of promotions from frontline jobs to entry-level corporate roles than other employees of color. They also report levels in inclusiveness in line with their White peers when they are promoted to corporate roles.

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Creating a pathway for advancement from the front line

Our analysis assessed occupations by their value and role in career advancement and identified concrete pathways for advancement. We found it is possible for workers to move from initial frontline jobs and the accompanying economic insecurity to roles with middle-class incomes and better career prospects.

A recent McKinsey research effort sought to identify the progression of frontline workers as well as the attributes and experiences that enable their advancement. 6 We analyzed historical job progressions of four million workers without four-year degrees, also known as individuals Skilled Through Alternative Routes (STARs), 7 who successfully transitioned from low- to higher-wage occupations and identified the jobs that created pathways to higher-paying roles. The career journey was segmented into five job categories 8 :

  • Origin occupations are frontline jobs with pay of less than $37,000. Wait staff, retail salespeople, and maintenance workers are common Origin roles.
  • Mid-wage Origin roles, such as automotive master mechanics and chefs provide a small increase in pay ($37,000–$42,000) for workers who transition from Origin roles.
  • Roles in Historical Adjacencies, such as cargo and freight agents, electricians, and nurse practitioners, offer workers a bump in pay (to more than $42,000), but they have limited success as pathways to higher-wage occupations.
  • Gateway occupations give workers the opportunity to build skills and experience and earn more than $42,000 a year. Gateway roles include food service managers, vocational nurses, and radiologic assistants.
  • Target occupations are jobs with middle to higher wages (more than $42,000) that are resilient to automation. Companies often hire for these roles based on job experience, not just credentials. Examples include sales managers, social workers, and critical-care nurses.

Our analysis identified 77 Gateway occupations that are especially effective at unlocking job progressions into Target jobs (Exhibit 5). These roles can help workers develop new skills (for example, a customer service representative moving into an IT role) or broaden existing skills gained through work experience (such as a medical assistant moving into a more advanced role in healthcare).

Gateway occupations offer multiple paths to target roles.
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A closer look at Origin roles reveals unequal access to the jobs that provide a path to higher-paying jobs. Origin roles in which workers of color are overrepresented (for example, security guards and light-truck drivers) have pathways to higher-paying roles, but workers of color are not promoted to these jobs (Exhibit 6).

Even in US origin jobs where people of color are overrepresented, White employees are generally overrepresented in the next job progressions.
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The existence of these pathways should be cause for optimism. However, workers of color must also overcome entrenched biases within the workplace that limit opportunities and impede their advancement. For instance, many of the roles with pathways lean more on interpersonal skills than on formal education. Since the assessment of these skills is inherently more subjective, it allows bias to have a greater influence on promotion decisions.

‘While there are opportunities at times for advancement, my peers often doubt me and my skill set is judged, even though I share the same qualifications as everyone else.’

Race in the workplace: The frontline experience

A road map for change

Our research and analysis have clearly demonstrated that frontline workers want to develop, progress, pursue new opportunities, and find roles that are more fulfilling. In that regard, companies have the potential to mobilize and develop their front line, which could create benefits for workers and organizations alike.

Yet companies must provide more support to frontline workers to enable their career advancement. This will require organizations to reassess their traditional approach to the front line and directly address three myths.

Myth 1: Frontline workers are free to move up the corporate ladder.

Reality: More than 70 percent of frontline workers want to be promoted within their companies, but only 4 percent make the leap to corporate.

While relatively few frontline workers get promoted to corporate jobs, it’s not for lack of interest. By acknowledging this truth, companies can turn their focus to increasing that number.

  • Formalize paths for advancement from the front line to higher-paying roles
  • Overhaul the frontline talent management system
  • Establish a talent market program

Myth 2: Frontline workers are not qualified for higher-level roles.

Reality: 70 percent of job progressions to Gateways hinge on transferable interpersonal skills, which are best learned through experience.

Companies can support upward mobility by emphasizing on-the-job experience, and creating more transparency around opportunities and skills needed.

  • Define the skills frontline workers need for higher-level roles
  • Reward experience rather than relying on credentials
  • Identify Gateway jobs within the organization and remove artificial barriers to promotion

Myth 3: High rates of turnover are just the way it goes on the front line.

Reality: Companies have a responsibility to create a better employee experience.

Companies can improve the workplace environment to make the worker experience more positive and sustainable.

  • Give a voice to frontline workers
  • “Raise the floor” on the frontline experience
  • Invest in frontline managers

‘My sponsors have allowed me to rotate jobs and learn about different departments. I’ve been able to learn new types of skills.’

Race in the workplace: The frontline experience

For tens of millions of workers of color, frontline jobs have the potential to be far more than just a livelihood. 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 interesting new jobs across industries. Much work remains to fulfill this aspiration. But for workers who have been traditionally overlooked, the time is long past due for companies to provide more opportunities and support.

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