Success in store

Today, far from looking down on a career in retail, graduates are queuing up to get on to the shop floor, writes Jim Kelly

In the past, some people went to university to avoid working in a shop. Ingrained attitudes to "trade", the long hours and indifferent pay were enough to put many off a career in the retail sector. But for today's graduates, working for one of Britain's many retail businesses - especially the major "household names" - can be very rewarding. Employers, in a fiercely competitive sector, are desperately in need of smart managers, so career opportunities for graduates are improving all the time.

In the past, some people went to university to avoid working in a shop. Ingrained attitudes to "trade", the long hours and indifferent pay were enough to put many off a career in the retail sector. But for today's graduates, working for one of Britain's many retail businesses - especially the major "household names" - can be very rewarding. Employers, in a fiercely competitive sector, are desperately in need of smart managers, so career opportunities for graduates are improving all the time.

"Traditionally, graduates didn't want to end up working alongside the kids who didn't do well at school. Plus the customers - and the staff - are in your face all day," says Terry Jones, a spokesman for Agcas, the Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services. "But actually, in a business that values common sense and people skills more than qualifications, graduates can move very fast and end up earning good money - more than bank managers, for example."

The first decision for any graduate is whether to apply to the big national chains or to local or regional retailers. All the big brands have well-developed graduate entry schemes. But any graduate who is genuinely excited by the idea of selling may want to start somewhere much smaller. "It depends on what the individual wants," says Nigel Broome, chief executive of Skillsmart, the sector's training body. "Some may feel more comfortable in a less corporate environment. There may be relatively little freedom in a superstore, whereas a smaller environment may give more scope for flair and creativity." The bigger employers tend to take in graduates yearly at both store and head-office level, and specialist training may be set up for buyers, merchandisers, and managers in logistics, supply chains, human resources, finance, and so on. Some of these jobs offer travel opportunities, for example, visiting overseas suppliers.

However, it is at store level, where graduate salaries begin at around £20,000 a year, that the career structure has been most nebulous - a problem that Skillsmart is seeking to redress quickly. But many of those who start on the shop floor, so to speak, do end up at head office, where their first-hand experience counts for a lot. All employers insist that "people skills" head any list of required talents. This is not an industry in which someone can hide away in an office. John Lewis, which runs 26 department stores, and is co-owned by the staff, needs managers who can work with a range of people in a sensitive, rather than dictatorial, way. "We want people who can lead from the front, in a less traditional style perhaps, by motivating partners - they need to be able to engage with someone who has left school at 16, for example, as well as a more mature senior manager," says Michael Nathan, recruitment manager.

The stores, part of the wider John Lewis group, take on 10-15 graduates a year. Marks & Spencer, on the other hand, gets more than 5,000 graduate applications a year for around 100 vacancies in stores, and 20 at head office. A sophisticated online questionnaire helps to whittle down the hopefuls, using 10 key talents as criteria, headed, of course, by people skills. Career success, once graduates are on their way, reflects a real gift for business, says Shona Kent, M&S's graduate-recruitment campaigns manager. "I would say that commercial acumen is the first thing that stands out among the most successful, as well as resilience, flexibility and being driven by results."

Tesco employs 240,000 people in the UK and runs a graduate programme for between 100-150 people, which it has shortened to 18 months to give trainee managers a prompt taste of real responsibility. Sarah Hemus, resource manager for Tesco, recognises that successful candidates thrive in the retail environment: "These people love activity, they're action-orientated, and they like to gets things done and see results quickly. Stores are noisy and full of people - and it's people who are key."

Across the industry, graduates can expect to move fast if they have talent, and commitment. But they may meet internal competition, not all of which will come from people with degrees. Smart non-graduates, with several years of experience, can work their way up surprisingly quickly. Apprenticeship schemes are being revamped across the sector. Tesco, for example, took 500 on this year, and if apprentices complete the scheme, they have 70 per cent of the credits needed to enter the management programme - with "top-ups" available through further internal training.

There is one other emerging route into the sector that may well blossom in the next few years. Skillsmart is keen to develop two-year vocational degrees in retailing subjects - each linked to work-placement schemes. The University of the Arts in London is already running one such programme in retail management, alongside a BA Hons programme, at the London College of Communication. The academic year includes eight weeks of work experience. School-leavers considering university might like this quicker route to the shop floor.

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