Retail Big Conversation: Fixing the Talent Gap

Retail training programs are impotent. Scholarships are nearly non-existent. Flexible working hours are seldom offered. Something needs to change.

Former Myer chief executive and retail giant Bernie Brookes sat down with Six Degrees Executive Retail Recruitment Manager Chris Barr to discuss the talent outlook for the retail sector.

What’s the best approach for retailers to attract a new generation of talent?

“Retailers in the food and fashion game have all followed a similar track. They’ve cut costs, reinvested in price, but haven’t reinvested in their people. If you look at the training programs that retailers offer today, they’re quite impotent. Scholarships are nearly non-existent, flexible working hours are seldom offered, and maternity leave is no better than anywhere else. Head offices don’t have any attractive facilities. The business I was running recently in South Africa had a gymnasium, a medical clinic, a dentist, physio, chiropractor – everything the employees would need was downstairs in the head office.

“What we’re seeing in Australia is retailers are not keeping pace and making their business attractive. People can go and work for other businesses with a basketball court at the office – they can come and go as they like, dress how they like. That’s what attracts people to a business today. It’s like retailers have cocooned themselves in the dark ages in their ability to attract people.”

But it’s not just about the facilities at the head office. Bernie believes a lack of investment in people has created a worrying talent gap in retail.

“Why would you want to work for a place where they’re not going to train you? Any funds that they should be using to invest in training, scholarships, sending people overseas, indoctrinating people into retail; they’re investing in price instead. What they’re getting now is another generation of undereducated, underperforming and untrained retailers coming through the ranks. It’ll take a generation to fix.

“Retailers think the power of the dollar [salaries] attracts talent, but it’s the power of how well you’re educating and multiskilling people that convinces them to stay.”

What role should retail associations play?

“The significant dilemma at the moment”, says Bernie, “is that we have three retailer association groups in Australia. There really isn’t a single, consistent voice as there is in the banking fraternity or for mining and minerals.

“Other association groups are talking about careers, opportunities, the number of graduates in the pipeline, and the number of cadetships. Retail isn’t having these conversations.”

Bernie sees an opportunity for retailers to come together to provide a retail university, offer a larger number of retail scholarships to attract top talent, and provide better graduate and training programs. “In the UK and US, middle managers are put through a three-year, one-day-a-week course where they learn about retail. There’s nothing in that vein here,” he says.

“No one is talking with an industry voice about retail not just being the job that you take while at university before going to work in a bank. I mean, in a bank you might learn financial skills, wealth management and a bit about insurance. But in a retail environment you’re learning about customer service, technology, distribution, HR, industrial relations, online shopping, management of people and so on. It’s a universal and adaptable education and better for career advancement that a single-focus bank or insurance career. Working in retail is like a mini MBA.”

How can retailers find the right balance between experienced and digitally-savvy workers?

Bernie has seen first-hand the clash between what he calls “grey-hairs and techno-tots” occurring in the industry. Employers initially reacted to the digital revolution by ridding themselves of their experienced workers in favour of digitally-savvy young people, which Bernie says was a critical mistake:

“I was so irritated when I saw the likes of Coles and Woolworths immediately cleansing the older, experienced people from their workforce. What went out the door was all of that knowledge they could have passed on.

“People are starting to realise, however, that online shopping and e-commerce is only going to be 10 to 15% of business over the next five years. Bricks and mortar will still be very important, although retailers will build fewer stores. We’ll see the pinch point in retail talent settle down as employers look for the best retailers with tech skills, rather than pure techno-tots. But 15% of sales being online doesn’t mean you only need 15% of the workforce to be digital natives. You need a mixture of groups. The balance is there – what you need is the synergy between grey hairs and younger people coming together to create the perfect mix.”

Bernie comments that people can learn from each other – not just older workers passing on their wisdom to the younger generation, but through reverse mentoring. “Young executives that I mentor have taught me about social media, the digital revolution, the web, e-commerce, home shopping … and in return I’ve taught them about inventory control, distribution facilities, customer service and retail technology.” 


Talk to Six Degrees Executive Retail Recruitment Manager Chris Barr to learn more about talent solutions in the retail sector.