Retailers try to sell retailing as career Jobs: Brandishing everything from flexible working hours to more attractive 401(k) plans, retailers woo prospective employees at Maryland's first retail-only job fair.

September 03, 1998|By Lorraine Mirabella | Lorraine Mirabella,SUN STAFF

Sandra Foy has seen it time and again at the college job fairs, how eager students line up at the Merrill Lynch booth and pass right by Kmart Corp. and the other retailers.

"It's a perception thing," said Foy, a New Jersey-based regional recruiter for Kmart, who finds that graduates view retail in terms of part-time sales jobs, rather than realizing the potential -- just six or seven years out of school -- of running a $20 million store employing a hundred or more people.

During the state's first retail-only job fair yesterday in Woodlawn, Foy and representatives of two dozen major retailers aggressively recruited employees for jobs ranging from cashier to management trainee, luring them with stock options, 401(k) plans, flexible hours, tuition reimbursements and profit sharing.

Faced with greater competition for workers from a shrinking labor pool, retailers said they are offering more competitive wage and benefit packages to keep their stores staffed and a ready supply of workers to promote into management jobs.

Kmart, for one, has improved its benefits, making employees eligible for the 401(k) plan after six months instead of a year, allowing them to become fully vested after two years, not five, in part because of greater competition from Target and Wal-Mart, Foy said.

"You have more people vying for that one candidate," she said. "They're looking for the same thing we're looking for."

Most retail recruiters and managers interviewed yesterday said they need both part-time and full-time workers, in many cases because of rapid nationwide expansions. Many said they're finding it difficult to attract trainees into management programs, especially as today's college graduates have their choice of jobs that don't require long hours and weekend work.

"We need 'em," said Adrian Lumpp, a district sales manager with Footaction USA, which has stores at malls throughout the Baltimore region. "As a company, we're growing very, very rapidly. The opportunities are always there. Our company is looking for growth-oriented individuals with long-term aspirations beyond store manager."

Home Depot representatives also came in search of college graduates -- not necessarily with business degrees -- for a management program in which trainees can move after two years to an assistant store manager job -- and a salary range of $35,000 to $45,000, said Edie Tilley-Stern, the chain's Baltimore-based regional human resources manager.

"It's tough work, but if you're looking for a challenge and an

opportunity to grow, the sky's the limit," Tilley-Stern said.

Retailers at the event at Martin's West, sponsored by Maryland Retailers Association, included chains such as Sears Roebuck and Co., Safeway Inc., Ikea, Circuit City Stores Inc. and Home Depot. All took applications and conducted interviews on site. Nearly 400 job-seekers had come through the doors by mid-afternoon.

Vanessa Marshall, 38, of West Baltimore sat at a table filling out her 10th job application. She applied at Sears, Macy's, Hecht's, Home Depot and Circuit City, among others, and felt sure of leaving with more than one solid job prospect. After all, she had two highly sought-after qualifications, retail experience and enthusiasm for a field she said she missed.

"They have plenty of positions open," she said. "Something's going to come of this."

Other applicants came into the job fair seeking temporary employment, but said after hearing retailers' sales pitches that they would consider longer-term retail careers.

"Most have real nice benefits," said Diane Marner, 37, of Woodlawn, a dietitian whose job had been cut. "If I were to find something I like it could be a change of career," she said.

Retail has suffered more than other industries from a shortage of quality labor, said Steve Cochrane, a senior economist with DTC Regional Financial Associates in West Chester, Pa.

"It has partly to do with the fact that there are so many employment opportunities in so many other industries right now, many that pay better than retail," he said, adding that when it comes to finding management candidates, "there are fewer college grads out there than when the baby boomers were getting out of college. And they are graduating into an economy that's as strong as it's been for years."

In Maryland in July, for instance, the pool of unemployed workers numbered 130,266 -- 10.3 percent fewer than in July 1997, according to Regional Financial Associates. In Maryland, where 430,000 retail employees account for about 20 percent of the state's labor force, retail employment has grown an average of 1.5 percent over the past five years, a little more slowly than state employment as a whole, according to the U.S. Labor Department.

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