Retail gets therapy

Philip Green’s plans to set up a £10m retail academy to train school leavers have been broadly welcomed by UK retailers. But his claim that there is a lack of talent in the industry has polarised the views of leading HR and training professionals working in the sector.

The billionaire owner of Bhs and the Arcadia Group, which includes the high street chains Topshop, Burtons and Dorothy Perkins, said he wants to create motivated company bosses of the future.

The academy – to be jointly funded by the Government – will have places for 200 students to be trained in every aspect of retail, with the curriculum including marketing, design and finance.

“There is a lack of talent coming through the ranks. It is very hard to find new people,” said Green.

Argos Group HR director Mike Sibbald agreed. “I think Green is right – finding good people is difficult,” he said. “Businesses are fighting hard to gain a share of what talent is available.”

While welcoming the plans for the academy, Sibbald said a potential area of concern was the fact that the retail industry breaks down into distinctive sectors. “There is fashion, food and general merchandising,” he said. “The requirements and demands are different in each sector. If we were looking to invest in this we would have to know the training was broad enough to meet our needs.”

Steve West, head of learning and development at music and entertainment retailer HMV Group, was less enthusiastic. He said that recruitment difficulties are not unique to the retail sector. “I don’t see evidence of a lack of talented people,” he said. “It is always a challenge to find the right people for management positions, but the same can be said for other industries.”

Numbers are not a problem – the retail sector employs about 2.8 million people in the UK – but Green said the leading companies have lost the ability to provide the necessary training.

Part of the problem, said Sibbald, is that retail is not seen as a glamorous career option for young people. “We have a big task to attract people and convince them they can have a future in a major industry,” he said.

David Southwell, communications director at the British Retail Consortium, agreed that the industry has to promote retail as a “cool and chic” option to school leavers. “We want young people to see retail as the place to go for the best way into business,” he said. “This is about investing in the future and making it clear to them that they can work their way through the ranks.”

Gillian Ince, training manager at accessories chain Claire’s said training and development can be difficult in an industry characterised by high labour turnover and heavy part-time working.

But, she said, the sector was changing and businesses were trying harder to develop people. “Finding the best way of training people is important,” Ince said. “We have been training line managers to develop their staff and put a lot of emphasis on people owning their own development.”

Ince believes the academy is a good idea in principle but she cautioned that it is still too early to say what effect it would have on the retail sector in the long term.

The UK is not the first country to pursue the idea of an academy. Singapore’s retail industry launched a similar initiative in July to beef up competitiveness and professional standards. It caters for the development of both rank-and-file employees and senior management from the region’s retailers. It has piloted two courses in buying and finance, and offers executive courses on international retailing, as well as advanced negotiation skills.

The UK academy, to be based in or around London, could be open as early as September next year. An Arcadia spokesperson said the group was looking to join with a non-competitor retailer in running operations.

Green’s credentials for running the academy appear to be sound. Arcadia has a record of successfully supporting young talent, with more than 60 per cent of its staff aged under 25. Trainees can expect to be fast-tracked into a management position within 12 months, and each year the group recruits more than 100 graduates directly into positions at head office.

The retail tycoon – previously not known for a willingness to share his best ideas – hopes that other industries will follow his example of establishing a “centre of excellence to create the next great entrepreneurial talent”.

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