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Retailers Try To Lure College Grads

June 17, 1998

NEW YORK (AP) _ There’s a lot more to retailing than folding sweaters at the Gap or working the register at a Kmart, but that’s the image that turns many college graduates away from careers in the industry.

Faced with a scant pool of job applicants and fierce competition from hot careers in finance, consulting and technology, merchants have an uphill fight on college campuses.

So salaries are going up for entry level jobs for college grads _ some by as much as 25 percent from the early 1990s _ and chief executives are making recruiting calls to steer young people toward retailing.

Many retailing giants who normally compete for workers, including Sears, Roebuck & Co., Wal-Mart Stores Inc., and J.C. Penney & Co., are even joining forces at a conference Friday to develop ways to raise student interest.

``Students think retailing is the minimum-wage sales job, working nights and weekends,″ said Ellen Goldsberry, director of the Southwest Retail Center for education and research at The University of Arizona. ``They’ve formed this narrow view, and they don’t consider it a career with opportunities.″

College graduates aren’t jumping into careers in retailing anymore, a big change from years ago when it was a sought-after occupation for young people, especially those who grew up with family or friends in the business.

Competition was fierce to get into department and specialty stores’ executive training programs, which were long considered the breeding ground for the next generation of top retail managers.

But mass layoffs and many retail bankruptcies turned graduates away in the early 1990s. Many worried about the stability and job security in the retail industry.

Today, the booming job market gives students their pick at careers, with many veering toward better-paying jobs in other industries.

``I’m interested in retailing, but I’m not sure how far it will take me, so I may choose to go into marketing instead, where I might have more room to grow,″ said Jarenda Butler, who is entering her senior year at Florida A&M in Tallahassee.

To educate students like Butler about the different career opportunities in retailing, many merchants are stepping up their recruiting programs. They’ve expanded the number of times they visit schools in a year and also are sending more and higher-level people on those visits.

Instead of just interviewing, more time is dedicated to informing students about retailing _ with great emphasis put on the opportunities outside of just merchandising and store management, like finance, computer systems, real estate and community affairs.

Retailers are also becoming more aggressive on the Internet, providing materials about jobs on their own company Web pages as well as on sites run by university career centers. Some also supply CD-ROMs to students, which document the wide range of opportunities at their companies.

``There are so many different facets in retailing that students aren’t aware of,″ said Larry Naishtut, vice president of merchant development at Macy’s East. ``We need to tell them that a career in retailing isn’t a dead end. Many CEOs came right from these executive training programs.″

Retailers are even working together to think of ways to develop student interest. On Friday, about 20 of the nation’s biggest retailers along with educators from a number of large universities will gather at a workshop outside Chicago, where they will discuss how to boost the applicant pool.

The conference, which is run by Sears and Indiana University, brings together retailers who normally compete for the top talent. Participants include Wal-Mart, J.C. Penney, Dayton Hudson Corp., Federated Department Stores Inc., Carson Pirie Scott and May Department Stores Co.

``It’s tough. We aren’t seeing a broad band of students″ who want to go into retailing,″ said Bob Wery, director of college relations at Sears. ``Now we have to work together to try to improve this situation.″

As they try to develop more ways to recruit students, some have already worked. Many stores have raised salaries for entry-level workers in recent years, making their base pay competitive with other industries. The average now runs as high as about $40,000, up from the low $30s a few years ago.

Many retailers also are increasing the number of internships they offer to students still in school. That not only allows merchants to teach them about different parts of the business, but also gives time for a long-term courtship before students make a career choice.

That’s what convinced Kerry Rhodes to even consider a job in retailing. After finishing his junior year as a marketing major at Kent State University in Ohio, he accepted a 10-week internship at a local J.C. Penney store.

Today, at age 23, he runs the children’s department at Penney’s Eastwood Mall store right outside nearby Youngstown.

``I didn’t want to go into retailing but I couldn’t find another job,″ Rhodes said. ``I was greedy, money-hungry and didn’t think that retailing was a career that could provide me with what I wanted.

``Now, I have more responsibility at work than most of my friends, and I don’t know too many other people my age who have enough money for a new car and a condo,″ he said. ``I guess I just needed to learn a little more about the business.″

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