Selling retail careers

Success: Retailers are finding that with pre-work training and support from mentors, students take their jobs more seriously and stay with employers longer.

February 13, 2000|By Lorraine Mirabella | Lorraine Mirabella,SUN STAFF

On an unusually quiet Friday night in Macy's children's department, April Selden is in charge, straightening display tables between helping shoppers in search of good buys on boys' winter jackets.

The department's lone sales associate is betting that snow-covered roads have scared shoppers away from the Marley Station mall. But nothing is keeping Selden from her job.

Call it being responsible, but merely showing up for work has put the 17-year-old in a class above many of her peers.

For retailers in a tight labor market, chronic no-shows and high turnover are part of a growing problem. With workers failing to stick around on entry-level jobs and rarely moving up, shortages arise at nearly every level.

"The pool you'd normally use is shrinking," said Tom Saquella, president of the Maryland Retailers Association. "A lot of people are already employed. Retailers will have to change the way they get employees."

Toward that end, the Maryland trade group and others like it around the nation hope to create a framework of school-to-work-style mentoring programs to show high school students that retail can be more than a part-time job.

Few young people realize, for instance, that the industry offers jobs in marketing, sales promotion, buying, finance, internal auditing and loss prevention, to name a few categories. Some of those jobs come with six-figure salaries, said Corinne Berkseth, a project coordinator for the NRF Foundation, a nonprofit research and education arm of the National Retail Federation.

Selden, a senior at Arundel High School in Gambrills, had worked part-time retail jobs before, as a cashier at a movie theater, a grocery store and McDonald's. She had never thought of continuing on a retail career path.

"It would have never dawned on me. I had no idea you could work your way up that way, as a sales associate, to be a manager," she said. "You think retail is not forever. But I see you could do it."

Through Youth Opportunities in Retail, launched as a pilot program by the Maryland retailers group, Selden is being trained in skills she can use regardless of the career she chooses. She is one of 20 students from Anne Arundel County high schools who began working at Macy's; Wards; Sears, Roebuck and Co.; and Hecht's in November.

The program aims to add a dimension to the part-time jobs, by helping schools integrate retail skills into marketing courses and having a program director offer students pre-work training and continuing support and evaluations.

For Selden, the help of program director Alecia A. Wright, a former Hecht's department manager, has made all the difference between the Macy's job and previous ones.

"When you're young, people don't take you seriously," Selden said. "It's nice to have someone back you up. My biggest fear was not being able to have a voice in such a big place. With Alecia, it makes a big difference."

As for staying in retail, "I'm considering it," said Selden, who hopes to attend Morgan State University next fall.

Pre-work training can make a difference for retailers as well.

Students hired without the support of such a program, say for the holiday rush, typically "work long enough to have as much money as they need for Christmas, then they leave," said Peaches Galle, personnel manager for Wards in Albuquerque, N.M. Or, she said, they might start work in spring and quit by summer. "When they find out they actually have to work, that puts a cramp in it."

Some just don't show up when they want time off, she said.

But since 1994, Galle's store has participated in the Youth Opportunities program, started by the New Mexico Retail Association and being copied in Maryland and elsewhere. Employees in that program take their jobs more seriously, some staying with the chain while in college or even permanently, Galle said.

"I have been impressed with them," Galle said. "These are terrific kids. If they have a scheduling problem, they let you know far enough in advance. [The program] helps them realize they have to put on that [adult] persona, and that persona sticks."

Employment, and the high cost of recruiting and training workers, has become one of the chief concerns of retailers, said Berkseth.

"There's a shortage of applicants in general, but especially qualified applicants," Berkseth said. "Any of us have our own stories of poor customer service experiences."

Part of the problem stems from a climate of low unemployment in which workers have their choice of higher-paying jobs in other industries.

But retailers also face shortages because of "a distorted image of retail careers in general," said Berkseth. "The industry tends to be seen as dead-end, as low-skill. The career paths that are lucrative and challenging aren't as widely known as they need to be."

For instance, salaries average $60,000 for a store manager, $45,000 for a department manager and $105,000 for a district manger, according to the 1999 Annual Specialty Store Compensation and Benefit Survey.

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