Retail affected by labour crunch
In recent months, looming or existing labour shortages in BC’s construction and hospitality sectors have generated plenty of headlines, but almost unnoticed by all except those in the business is a growing staffing crisis that threatens to create severe problems for the province’s retail industry.
According to Retail BC president and CEO Mark Startup, “Our most recent member needs’ survey of retailers showed that staffing and staff-related issues are now our members’ number one business concern.” As a result, he says, retailers across the province are feeling the effects of what has become an employee market, forcing them to take a harder look at how they attract good people and what they do to make sure those they do hire stick around.
Retail labour market size
It’s a sizeable market. Government figures show that in 2005, BC retailers employed some 255,000 people, more than health care (217,000), manufacturing (198,000), or hospitality (176,000), and even more than the combined workforce in construction, forestry and agriculture (198,000). And with unemployment figures approaching a historically low four percent, workers have become increasingly choosy about where they work.
Labour shortage in retail sector
Jane Dew, Operations Manager for Regis Pictures and Frames, an innovative family owned and operated business with 18 locations throughout the province, says although the problem of attracting staff hasn’t yet begun to affect the company’s operations, “it’s very, very tough right now”, with the pool of potential employees dwindling to a mere puddle.
“It’s always been difficult to find the right calibre of staff, but what I’ve definitely noticed is the number of applications has dwindled,” she says. “Usually we would have a stack of resumes that we could go through and pre-screen. That stack’s not there any more.”
She says some areas are better than others. In Langley and on the North Shore, for instance, applicants seem to be particularly thin on the ground, while in Burnaby and Vancouver it’s much less of a problem. At the moment, the company is looking for both full- and part-time staff at a number of levels and though Dew is confident they will be able to fill those positions, she is looking forward with some trepidation to the fall and the need to build up for Christmas.
Brenda Dumont has spent virtually her entire career in retail recruiting, most recently as founder and president of Canadaretail.com, a nationwide retailing job board she sold last year to media giant CanWest and that is now part of that company’s huge working.com site. According to her, staff shortages here are part of a continent-wide phenomenon affecting almost every sector of the US and Canadian economies. She says this is partly a result of millions of baby boomers beginning to retire from the workforce, but mostly it’s because there are not as many warm bodies at the start of their working lives.
“There are just flat out fewer people entering the workforce,” she says, pointing out that virtually every major retailing organization in North America is funding studies aimed at getting a clearer picture of the present climate and just how tight things may be in the future.
Retail as a career
An added factor exacerbating the problem, according to Dumont, is the generally poor image of retail as a career path. She says that a perception arose among baby boomers that retail “was fine for part time work, but it wasn’t really a place where smart people went for a job. People have passed this attitude on to their children and even grandchildren. The attitude, she says, seems to be uniquely Canadian.
“In the US, an American will come out of Harvard, for instance, and choose retail as a profession,” she days. “Many European parents hope their children will go into retail in much the same way we hope ours will become doctors or lawyers.”
Dumont finds the low regard for retail just as puzzling as it is inaccurate. She points out that, even though entry level positions are generally “not overpaid to say the least” — in common with pretty much every sector — pay scales today are such that “if you are a skilled sales person, you can make a very good living, even at an hourly rate”.
Promoting retail as a career path
Are there solutions to the problem? Dumont believes there are, but admits there is no quick fix. She readily concedes retail is not for everyone. However, she notes many of the characteristics of a good retail person – particularly people skills – are the same as those required in the hospitality industry. And the hospitality sector, in the past, suffered from many of the same image problems retail does today. That perception change is something from which retailers can learn a lot.
Over the past several years, the hospitality industry has actively worked to promote itself as one where careers are not only possible, but also financially and personally rewarding. There are now extensive tertiary level hospitality training programs at many institutions, a number of which lead to degrees. As a result, young people entering the workforce, and even those looking to switch careers, have a much more favourable view of the industry as a lifelong occupation.
Dumont says retailers have begun to take the same approach. Across the country, representatives of associations such as Retail BC make regular forays into universities and high schools. They aim to spread the message that “there are interesting, challenging and rewarding careers in the retail industry”. In addition, many educational institutions now offer “serious retail training, as opposed to a two-week customer service course”. For example, Ryerson University in Toronto offers a degree in retailing, the University of Alberta is in the process of setting up a School of Retail Management, and BCIT launched a “very fine” retail training program.
Of course, these are long term solutions. In the short term, Dumont believes retailers are going to have to do a little more outside the box thinking. Some are already doing that and have begun, as Startup says, “to offer something different, something more – whether that is training, professional development or a long term plan for their position”.
Employee retention key
But at least part of the solution also lies in employers keeping their employees. “It’s not only finding good people, but keeping them that is the challenge,” says Startup. That’s something Derek Newnes, owner of Searles Shoes, in Courtenay, has put a lot of though into.
Searles has been a fixture in the small Vancouver Island centre for 85 years. Newnes and his wife bought the store 12 years ago, after his 24-year career with Woodward’s ended when that former retailing powerhouse shut down. Today they have eight employees ranging from age 17 to 52 and turnover is low. Two of his staff have been there for more than a decade. The store receives visits regularly from people employed there as students who have since gone on to other careers but who still feel a part of the Searles “family”.
Newnes says money is only part of the retention equation. He believes that, in a business whose pockets are not nearly as deep as some others, it all boils down to the familiar gold rule – treat people the way you would like to be treated yourself.
“Money is definitely part of it, but it’s not everything,” he says. “It’s working conditions, being part of the group or team, its making staff feel they are wanted and they are respected for their abilities and for what they do.”
He does that by making sure his people are well trained and ensuring they are not put “in over their head” and expected to undertake duties they have neither the training nor experience to handle. He also involves staff in business decisions by listening to their input. Searles points out that, because his responsibility is for the business as a whole, staff on the sales floor often know his customers better than he does. So he habitually taps that knowledge when he makes stocking decisions.
Retail labour market shortage can be overcome
There is no evidence the labour market is going to ease any time soon. Indeed, it seems likely the tight situation will be part of the retail landscape for some time to come. For Dew, though, the situation is not new and she is confident the industry will deal with it. “It is tough finding the right person, but it’s part of retailing and we have gone through patches before where the economy has been booming and it’s tough to recruit, so we will work it out.”
By Retail BC
Retail BC represents, supports and speaks on behalf of BC’s retail community. To find out how we can support your success visit www.retailbc.org.