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Best and Brightest Need Apply

Newly Minted College Grads Passing Retail By

The Robin Report and Herbert Mines Associates recently conducted a “Retail Leadership” survey of 135 Presidents and CEOs with Women’s Wear Daily and found that 90% of respondents believe that the industry is not attracting the best and brightest on college campuses. Kristin S. Dennehy, a Managing Director of Herbert Mines Associates, who recruits senior executives in fashion and retail, said this is a growing issue gnawing at the industry and discusses an action plan for attracting and retaining younger talent.

Q. What is your perspective on why the fashion and retail industries are facing such a big talent void at the incoming and junior levels?

A. The industry faces several issues when it comes to attracting and training young talent. Perhaps the biggest is the diminished number of formal department store training programs as a result of the massive consolidations that have taken place. Most of today’s senior retail leaders started their careers in management training programs, where they were exposed to functional rotations to teach them different disciplines, and saw examples of a career path laid out by more senior executives who advanced from the bottom up. Today’s new hires are missing that.

With the growth of specialty retail, and wholesalers becoming retailers, a new model has to be created to replace this career foundational training. One retail CEO told me about his daughter, who interviewed out of college last year at ten different retailers for an entry-level management position – only one had a training program.

Q. Do any companies still have these “gold standard” retail training programs?

A. Yes, but in much smaller numbers. The department stores, such as Macy’s Inc., which also owns Bloomingdale’s, still have their formal management training programs, as do specialty retailers such as Chico’s and Coldwater Creek, off-pricer TJX, and luxury retailer DFS. Other companies have created a paid or unpaid internship program that gives the company a chance to attract and view new recruits and this seems to be a growing trend of attracting talent. Gap, for example, has a six-month internship that rotates the internee through different disciplines, a great way to get younger talent engaged in understanding the career possibilities at the company. More companies need to formalize the process, however.

Q. Are retailers actively recruiting on college campuses?

A. Most college campuses, except those with specialized fashion and retail programs, are not being widely approached by the industry to communicate the excitement and career opportunities the industry holds for their students. For the most part, retailers are ignoring schools with top programs in business and liberal arts, which is a mistake. Companies need to create a master plan which begins at the top of the organization and focuses on how to recruit the best and brightest and do outreach to career services at the campuses to speak about opportunities in the industry. They also need to encourage senior leaders to take part in campus outreach at their Alma Maters.

Q. How different is this generation of college grads from the one before it?

A. The generation that has grown up in the digital age wants instantaneous feedback and reward. They are impatient and want to move up the career ladder fast. The lack of a foreseeable career track makes it more difficult to keep this junior-level talent engaged. The transparency now available through LinkedIn and other social network sites exposes people at this level to their competitors and peers. They see what’s happening in other companies and industries and want to keep up, and therefore there is a lot more poaching between companies at the junior levels. Companies need to plan for talent acquisition and pipeline development to fill their junior level roles, and sell the “why” of their industry, rather than just react and reach out to advertise about open positions. They also need to communicate the wide variety of functions a retail management career includes. Many people still think of it as just buying, merchandising and store management, but the fact is there is challenging work to be done in the areas of design, marketing, systems, brand management, sourcing, production, operations – the list goes on and on.

Q. Even though your work is to recruit C-suite executives, what are you hearing from your clients about their struggle to attract and retain young talent?

A. It is a recurring struggle and they are consistently looking to fill positions for people with only a few years experience. Senior leaders are aware that this is an industry-wide issue, and they want to figure out how to attack the problem. It has to become a priority for them.

Q. What should the action plan be for Human Resources executives in retail and fashion to capture new leadership?

A. There is a three-pronged approach that the industry should consider:

1) Self-assessment: Companies need to ask themselves if they are doing a good job at attracting and retaining junior talent. If they are, then they should promote their strategy to the industry as a best practice. If they decide they fall short, then the company needs to take action. Talk about the talent acquisition topic at this level, not just your senior leadership level.

2) Create a strategy: Companies need to be proactive. Two retailers we have spoken with recently shared that they realized the need to do more than just fill immediate positions. When they recognized their growth plans required a pipeline of talent, they hired someone within the Human Resources department to focus exclusively on college recruitment, program development for a training program, and to market this career opportunity on college campuses. They also created a campus tool kit to educate, and got the company exposure at career fairs to educate the students and career services leaders. The aim was also to get connected with less “obvious” fashion and retail schools to market at more of a cross-section of colleges. They brought in functional leaders from the company to meet students and talk about retail careers. One of these retailers started at local colleges, now has national reach, and has 5 years of trackable stick rate at their junior levels to attribute to the program.

3) Market and educate: Once a strategy is in place, Human Resources can map a plan to reach schools where retail and fashion is not woven into their DNA –a huge population of students does not consider fashion and retail as a career. They also need to create a specific area in the career section of the website to outline this career opportunity that sells the passion and excitement of their brand. For example, advertising a “career” path at a company is much more attractive than posting a “job,” and yet many fashion and retail websites don’t market “career” opportunities.

Q. As we discussed, the up-and coming generation is looking for quick movement up the career ladder. Once you recruit them, what is the best way to train, groom and motivate them to stay?

A. Companies need to formalize their mentorship and sponsorship programs. The junior talent also needs to be given real projects where they are held accountable. Communication is key. Younger professionals should be asked where they would like to get exposure in the company. They also need to see people getting promoted – that shows them a career path and gives them an incentive to stay. The convergence of interactive and traditional retailing has opened up a huge opportunity to capture their interest. Exposing more junior talent to the digital commerce and social media sides of the business will also keep them interested rather than potentially being attracted away to pure play e-tailers. Grooming and keeping talent, formally exposing them to different functional areas to keep the work interesting and stimulating, showing them how they can progress upwards, and helping that happen quickly is more important today than ever.

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