How to Advance Your Career in the Service Industry

Close-up of young bartender serving cocktail in nightlife bar
Bartending is part of the hospitality industry, so put on a smile and have a great time with guests!. gruizza / Getty Images

Do you want to make your food service, hospitality, or retail job into a career? If you’re currently working in the service industry, you’ve made the most important first step—gaining experience. Now, it’s time to chart your career path in one of the industries with the highest volume of jobs. 

What Is the Service Industry?

The Pew Research Center reports that most Americans (71% of non-farm payroll employees as of July 2019) are employed in the service industry.

In 2018, there were 129.1 million service sector jobs. This industry includes retail and wholesale trade, hospitality, leisure, transportation and trade, information, and professional and business services occupations. 

The service-providing sector is expected to add 7.6 million jobs, resulting in 136.8 million total jobs by 2028. Even though the growth rate (0.6%) is only slightly above average, the large number of jobs provides many opportunities for those interested in a service industry career.

Service Industry Career Paths

There are many ways to get to where you’re going in the service industry. According to the National Restaurant Association, 9 out of 10 restaurant managers and 8 out of 10 restaurant owners started in entry-level food service positions. 

If you’re starting your career from scratch, you may want to consider targeting jobs at franchises or major chains that provide on-the-job training—even if your long-term goal is to move to a smaller organization. 

What does a service sector career path look like? Shake Shack, for example, shows a typical career path on its career website, starting with being a team member and ending with becoming an area director. Many food service organizations offer these types of opportunities to advance from entry-level positions. For instance, McDonald’s filled nearly 90% of all company-owned U.S. restaurant positions above entry-level by promotion in 2016. 

There are similar opportunities in retail. Over 75% of Walmart’s salaried store management teams started as hourly associates. In 2018, over 450,000 Walmart associates participated in an immersive training program that included classroom and sales floor training in advanced retail skills, as well as soft skills like leadership.

Plot Your Course

In any industry, it’s easy to just let your career path unfold as it will. To get ahead, however, you need to be more intentional about your career plans while allowing yourself enough flexibility to change tracks as needed.

Start by targeting your dream job, whether it’s weekend bartender, sommelier, or CEO of a restaurant group. Then, look at how the people who have that job today got where they are.

Tip: LinkedIn is invaluable, providing an overview of the experience, education, and skills that your colleagues acquired.

But don’t overlook the value of an informational interview either. You may be surprised at how willing people are to share what they’ve learned on their career path—including the less-positive side of their journey that never makes it to LinkedIn.

Find Employers That Promote from Within

Starting out in an entry-level job with an employer that promotes from within is one of the easiest ways to advance your career. When you’re applying for jobs, check out the company’s career section. You’ll find details on the company culture and how employees can grow within the organization.

During Walmart’s fiscal year 2019, over 215,000 people were promoted to higher-paying jobs with increased responsibility. Store managers, who earn $175,000 a year on average, manage and help mentor 300 associates. 

Starbucks not only provides “learning opportunities to develop skills, further careers and help partners achieve their personal and professional goals,” but alsotuition assistance or reimbursement for employees. 

Look for Company Training Programs

You can get a head start on growing your career if you start out at a company with a training program. There are a variety of options for learning while you’re employed. That’s even the case for part-time associates at some companies.

Some employers have management training programs, where you’ll be learning from your first day on the job. Many service industry employers offer opportunities for hourly associates to grow their career by participating in company-provided on-the-job training. For example, Home Depot offers product knowledge training and individual development plans to employees. 

Some companies even offer opportunities to learn in a different field. Amazon’s Career Choice program pays for 95% of tuition and fees (up to a yearly maximum) towards a certificate or diploma in qualified fields of study. Over 10,000 employees have participated, and many classes are held onsite at Amazon facilities. 

Take Advantage of Special Hiring Programs

Many service sector employers, including Marriott and Hilton—both top-ranked companies for diversity— as well as Home Depot, Starbucks, and Walmart, offer hiring programs for veterans, military spouses, people with disabilities, diversity candidates, and students.

In addition, companies offer benefits, like Target’s backup childcare and eldercare program, to attract candidates and retain employees. 

Working for a company that values inclusion and diversity can provide both a positive work environment and career options that otherwise may not have been available.

Get a Certification

Depending on state law and the job you’re targeting, certification may be a requirement or a means of raising your profile. Some states require all food handlers to be ServSafe-certified, for example. And bartenders may be required to get TIPS (Training for Intervention ProcedureS) certification in some states or specific restaurants, but they might also choose to get an optional certification like Cicerone to make themselves more desirable to certain employers.

Certification may also boost your pay, but it’s not a guarantee. Some sommeliers build successful careers without taking the Master Sommelier exam, for example, but getting certified can sometimes provide an earnings increase.

According to the Guild of Sommeliers 2017 salary survey, the median income for a master sommelier with Court of Master Sommeliers (CMS) certification is $164,000, compared to $55,000 for a sommelier/manager.

Look for Opportunities to Cross-Train

Cross-training in multiple roles can help you gain experience, try out new roles, and even prepare for management jobs. If you’re a cashier, you might ask to cross-train as a customer service representative. Or, if you’re a server, you might ask to cross-train as a bartender.

Best of all, learning more about other roles in the organization will help you do your current job better and show your boss that you’re eager to learn new things. Regardless of whether cross-training leads you to your dream job, it will help you develop marketable skills and a more robust professional network.

Volunteer for Extra Work

Want to move into management, learn a new job, or get a chance at more lucrative shifts? Make yourself available to help out, especially when there’s a schedule crunch. If there are ways you can assist your manager or a team member, be sure to offer.

The more availability and positivity you have, the more management will be aware of you as a promotable employee. The employees who are flexible and always willing to assist tend to get noticed and will most likely be promoted.

Continue to Explore Opportunities for Career Growth

Don’t settle for the job you have if you want to move up the career ladder. The service industry has many opportunities for career growth that you can take advantage of.

Consider different jobs within the same organization, or consider switching to a larger employer with a broader spectrum of options if you’re not moving up as quickly as you’d like. Service industry jobs are plentiful, so take advantage of the opportunities that are available to grow your own career.

Key Takeaways

Plan your career path Take some time to investigate options before you decide on what direction you’d like to take your career.

Get the skills you need Consider certificate programs, online learning, seminars, and other learning programs to boost your skills.

Look for employers who will help Take advantage of companies that provide training and development opportunities for associates.