Training Industry is partnering with the Upskill America Initiative at the Aspen Institute to monitor and examine the state of frontline training in light of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and heightened awareness around systemic racism. If you are a business leader with insights into these challenges, we encourage you to complete this brief survey.

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted nearly all aspects of both our personal and professional lives: Unemployment claims have hit record levels, many workplaces have gone remote, food insecurity has skyrocketed, many parents are now also teachers and birthdays are being celebrated over a screen.

Although the global pandemic has affected each of us in one way or another, frontline employees (i.e., health care workers, caregivers, grocery and retail workers, and hospitality workers and restaurant workers, among others) have been disproportionately impacted by the virus due to the nature of their jobs and multiple socioeconomic factors.

For example, according to the Center for Economic Policy and Research, people of color are overrepresented in many occupations within frontline industries. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) reports that people of color are more likely to contract COVID-19 due to longstanding health and social inequities, one of which is people of color being overrepresented in frontline occupations.

Women are also overrepresented on the front lines: The Center for Economic Policy Research found that while about one-half of all workers are women, nearly two-thirds of frontline workers are women. Women of color, many of whom work in frontline roles, are also the most vulnerable to layoffs and furloughs amid economic disruption, according to ongoing research by the Upskill America Initiative at the Aspen Institute.

Fortunately, training and development can help frontline workers develop the skills they need to succeed during and after the crisis — and keep them safer in the process.

In-demand Frontline Worker Skills

COVID-19 has forced organizations in frontline industries to adopt new ways of working. For example, many restaurants have had to switch from in-person dining to takeout and/or curbside pick-up options, all while following changing health and safety guidelines.

The Aspen Institute research study also found an increased demand for foundational workplace skills, such as adaptability, resilience, problem-solving, adopting a growth mindset, conflict resolution (e.g., practicing de-escalation techniques when dealing with customers who are not following health and safety protocols) and digital skills. It also identified management skills, such as inclusive leadership, to be of increased importance during the pandemic.

The demand for strong frontline leadership makes sense. After all, frontline workers are facing unprecedented challenges — managing changing health and safety precautions, job and/or financial insecurity, lack of child care, and fear of contracting the virus, among others. Effective leadership is critical in helping frontline workers navigate these difficulties so they can be successful.

The Challenge

But equipping frontline workers with in-demand skills may be easier said than done. The Upskill America Initiative at The Aspen Institute found that employers and employees alike face myriad barriers to effective learning, including (but not limited to):


There is uncertainty around which local, in-demand occupations are “future proof.” This challenge makes it difficult for organizations to implement effective outskilling programs, as it’s unclear which jobs will be around for the long haul.

Lack of Resources

Many small employers don’t have the resources to invest in training and upskilling their frontline employees, especially during a recession.

The Digital Divide

Many frontline employees have limited or no access to broadband and high-speed internet. These workers are, therefore, unable to access virtual training.

Literacy and Numeracy Skills Gaps

Virtual training and education often leaves behind English language learners and learners with low literacy and/or numeracy skills.

How Training Can Help

Training frontline workers looks different than training a group of office workers, middle managers or C-suite executives. Frontline employees often work long, unpredictable hours and have little time (or bandwidth) for learning. As such, frontline training is best delivered in brief, manageable chunks in an easily accessible format, such as mobile learning, asynchronous eLearning or video.

When delivering frontline training, learning leaders should focus on the most in-demand skills to ensure learners are positioned for success both now and in the future. For instance, training for frontline retail employees should address communication and customer service skills in addition to COVID-19 health and safety precautions and guidelines.

As previously mentioned, many frontline workers may not have reliable internet access to complete virtual training at home. Microlearning is one way to help frontline workers learn on the job, during downtime or on breaks. For maximum accessibility, frontline training should also be made available in multiple languages and shouldn’t require extensive numeracy or technical skills. It should also be easily digestible and directly applicable to learners’ roles.

As companies have examined their training practices in light of COVID-19, one benefit is that, in some cases, they are prioritizing training needs in a way they weren’t just a few years ago. For frontline workers, who are facing new risks and uncertainties amid the crisis, this training is not only essential for improved performance and sustained business outcomes but is a matter of corporate responsibility.

If you are a business leader with insights into these challenges, please complete this brief survey. We will continue to cover this initiative on