Boosting skills of job applicants

Business: Many retailers lack the resources needed for heavy-duty workplace training.

January 31, 2001|By Hermoine Malone | Hermoine Malone,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

NEW YORK - For the stores at Jersey Gardens Mall in Elizabeth, N.J., good customer service begins with job applicants.

Using one of three Retail Skills Centers sponsored by the National Retail Federation, Jersey Gardens trains job seekers in service and sales techniques. Then they help place the applicants in jobs where those skills can be used best, including potential management jobs.

The year-old Skills Center in New Jersey is just one example of how retailers are tackling training issues that previously left them with ill-equipped employees.

Some retailers, such as Circuit City, based in Richmond, Va., have developed their own development programs.

`Can't get enough'

Circuit City executive Jeff Wells says the electronics chain trains sales associate through a program called e-learning.

The program consists of computer training labs in all stores, 50 online course offerings and online instructors and mentors.

About 50,000 sales associates have taken more than 275,000 courses since e-learning started in September.

"That has blown me away," said Wells, senior vice president for human resources. "I thought we'd be forcing people to the PC. But what we found is they can't get enough of it."

By the end of December, Circuit City recouped its set-up costs for e-learning because the program trains workers more quickly and less expensively than traditional classroom-based training.

But retailers without in-house training programs have often turned to programs such as the Retail Skills Centers to assist workers.

"Many employers admit they just don't have the resources to train an employee with no skills," said Sarah Conrad, director of the Retail Skills Center at Jersey Gardens Mall.

80 hours of courses

In exchange for committing to 80 hours of courses (where they do not receive pay), workers are guaranteed support from staff at the Skills Center until they find a job, whether at the sponsoring mall or elsewhere in the city.

The center also offers free training to seasonal workers and existing employees whose skills might need polishing.

Many of the more than 200 retailers at Jersey Gardens have participated in the program. A mall in King of Prussia, Pa., and Arundel Mills mall in Maryland also have Retail Skills Centers.

The center has proved so successful in producing qualified job candidates that The Gap at Jersey Mills stopped buying classified advertising to find workers. And Continental Airlines, as well as Federal Express, have contacted the center for training assistance, Conrad said.

Soon, West Coast retailers may benefit from better-trained workers. The National Retail Federation is planning to open a fourth center in Seattle.

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