On a Retail Path

Achieving the Dream promotes increased access to "middle skill" careers for community college students.

December 15, 2015
Durham Tech
Students at Durham Tech participate in hotel simulation as part of the retail pathway.

It's the holiday season and the thought of a career in retail may draw images of perfume spritzers or the checkout lane at the nearest department store.

But that's not the type of career pathway that Achieving the Dream wants students to focus on if they're considering increasing their wages and moving into a management position. The nonprofit organization started a Retail Pathways initiative that awarded $120,000 to four community colleges to develop middle-skill retail career pathways for students.

ATD reached out to its network of colleges this summer and 129 responded, with 62 percent saying they offer a retail program and have heard from local retail businesses that they need more employees, said Karen Stout, president and chief executive officer of Achieving the Dream.

"They all said they were experiencing demand from their retail partners for middle-skill workers. Not entry level, but retail workers who have higher technology skills," Stout said. "Keep in mind that this isn't what you would traditionally think of as retail. Some of it is brick-and-mortar stores, but some of it is e-commerce retail, which requires deeper technology skills to enhance data and customer service expectations."

The four colleges -- Durham Technical Community College in North Carolina, Umpqua Community College in Oregon, and Florida's Tallahassee Community College and Broward College -- are each approaching the initiative in different ways, based on the industry needs for their areas. Nationally, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates about 1.1 million new jobs will be created in the retail sector by 2022.

At Durham, the focus is more on hospitality, which is considered part of retail. The retail industry is the largest private employer in the state, said Angela Davis, Durham Tech's resource specialist and career navigator, adding that more than 60 retail brands have headquarters or distribution centers in the state and 30 of the state's top employers are retailers.

"We have had more than 10 new hotels that have opened in the Triangle area and they're breaking ground on two more for 2016," Davis said. "So that was really the reason for this unique direction under the career pathway."

Durham is using a 17-week Skills, Tasks and Results Training, or START, program curriculum that was developed by the American Hotel & Lodging Educational Institute to help students prepare for entering the workforce. The program can lead to at least five certifications in guest services, alcohol, management and career services, with the opportunity to earn an additional certification in desk representation, restaurant serving, maintenance and guest room attendant.

ATD also requires each of the retail pathways to offer externships or internships to students. Durham had 14 students in the program this semester, with two of them receiving full-time job offers and four recently undergoing interviews at local businesses, Davis said.

"And we're continuing to add more partners. We seem to have more externship sites than students, so we have enough sites for each student to do a site separately," Davis said. "Right now we have 29 industry relationships and out of that 16 externships. So we can take 20 to 25 students."

Durham is planning to expand the program so that by 2017 the college will offer an associate degree in hospitality, she said, adding that the retail students are eligible to enter the business administration associate degree program.

At Florida's Broward College, the retail career pathway is different. Broward is offering a four-month, 12-credit sales and customer service certificate that can be used toward a business administration associate in science or arts degree. But the college is examining sales within a number of different industries.

"Rather than just what you think [of] as a storefront, we're looking across industries at things you might not think of as retail sales, like banking, insurance, financial services, tourism and hospitality, marketing and business," said Renee Law, district director of career and technical education at Broward College.

Broward County reached a record 14 million tourists last year and that's expected to grow, Law said.

Even if students aren't interested in a retail career, getting the sales certification may help them in whatever field they do decide to pursue.

A Broward graduate with a degree in information technology and the sales certification can say he or she is bringing something new or different to their career, said Mildred Coyne, executive director of workforce education and economic development at the college.

"You can go to a technology company and talk the language of technology, but you also have sales acumen. You know how to overcome objections and be positive in guiding someone to a decision," she said. "It's a complementary skill set."

But there is concern that retail careers don't have much labor market value. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median pay for retail sales workers was $21,410 a year, or $10.29 an hour.

"That's both true and not true. It depends on where in the pathway a career is. This [training] is for middle skills that lead to a management pathway," Stout said.

A housekeeping supervisor can earn about $39,000 a year and a general sales manager can earn about $46,000, Davis said, adding that those are national estimates.

However, in Broward, a supervisor in retail sales earns on average $15.85 per hour, based on recent local labor market data, Law said.

For now, these four colleges will remain the only ones to receive ATD funding for these retail pathways, Stout said.


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