Proud to be retail

Ambitious grads find big rewards—in between toys and housewares

Loblaw, Wal-Mart, L’Oréal and Abercrombie & Fitch are lacing up their gloves and pounding banks, hotels and financial service firms in the perennial grudge match to entice the world’s top graduates. They’re the scrappy underdogs going up against the established heavyweight champions, but now they’re employing the same secret weapon that’s been up the sleeves of the other industries for years—manager-in-training programs.

“In an environment where Loblaw is competing with Wal-Mart, Canadian Tire, Shoppers Drug Mart and, soon, Target, there’s no room for complacency. It’s a ruthlessly competitive landscape,” says Jeff Muzzerall, director of the Corporate Connections Centre at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management. “Now is a wonderful opportunity for retail to showcase itself.”

Alix Carter never expected her dream HR job to involve walking the aisles of a grocery store or asking a group of colleagues huddled between rows of frozen pizza and granola bars trivia about the founding of the company. But now, she says, she wouldn’t have it any other way.

“A lot of people might see retail and get scared away,” she says. Grad@Loblaw “showcased an industry that is overlooked by a lot of graduates.”

Carter is one of almost 400 recent graduates enrolled in the manager training program since it started in April 2009. Loblaw is inundated with applications, and the industry is growing so quickly that the federal government projects the demand for retail managers to exceed the number of job seekers until 2018.

“The millennials, they’re really looking to move up the corporate ladder,” says Sara Mann, a professor of management and organizational behaviour at the University of Guelph. “If organizations don’t promote these individuals quickly, they lose them.”

Loblaw’s program is divided into several different streams that aim to place graduates in management positions in a variety of fields within the organization—from IT to marketing to supply chain to human resources. Participants start in-store where they work with department managers to learn the core of the business. Then they move into merchandising before spending the final stretch of the 18-month program working a job within the stream they’ve chosen.

All participants are hired on at full salary. Loblaw doesn’t disclose what that is, but similar programs pay anywhere from $55,000 to $75,000, with full benefits. They’re also guaranteed a job when they graduate. That makes competition for openings extremely stiff, but it’s also necessary to attract the top graduates who are shopping the options more and more as we move past the recession.

“People don’t understand how many opportunities are out there with retail—it’s much more than just the customer in the store buying product,” says Eiren Good, who’s working in distributions after finishing Grad@Loblaw. “I’ve been exposed to thousands of different individuals in the organization, right through to senior vice-presidents and the executive leadership team. I’m very confident and optimistic moving forward—and I’m incredibly thrilled.”

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