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Making the jump from manufacturing to retail

Making the jump from manufacturing to retail

Displaced workers finding success in a new world order

Darcy Keith, Canwest News Service

At a time of gut-wrenching job losses in the manufacturing industry, retailers are hiring like gangbusters. But can those who made solid careers working at auto plants and constructing products on factory floors make a transition to satisfying new careers focused on serving the consumer face-to-face?

It’s possible, suggest career and retailing experts, especially for those who can get over the most obvious hurdle: the low starting wages for many retailing positions.

The key is to focus on the long term and realize that retailing offers a large array of jobs that can lead to a sizeable paycheque and rapid career advancement. Retailing has opportunities for flexible hours, management training and the ability to live in large or small population centres, lifestyle issues of importance to many people.

"Let’s be honest right from the start. Starting salaries in the retail trade are low relative to the industrial average," said Peter Woolford, vice-president of policy development and research for the Retail Council of Canada in Toronto. "What retail does offer to people is a very good opportunity to move up.

"We’ve seen significant growth in the trade in recent years and it’s been a challenge for retailers to find employees. So there are significant opportunities for retail employees to move up through the chain. It’s probably one of the few sectors where you can get ahead without a higher level of education," said Mr. Woolford.

Canada’s retail industry employed more people than manufacturing for the first time last year, according to Statistics Canada.

Government figures suggest more than 400,000 manufacturing jobs have been lost in Canada over the past five years. Meanwhile, the most recent census found the retail sector saw the largest growth in the number of jobs between 2001 and 2006, with 132,000 salespeople and clerks being added to the workforce and 43,300 cashiers.

Retailing is now the No. 1 career for males, who traditionally were more often associated with jobs in the manufacturing sector. StatsCan said the number of retail salesmen grew almost 29 per cent in the five years following 2001.

Mr. Woolford says retail opportunities for those who were in manufacturing will vary. In one category are those who worked in white-collar functions, such as sales and marketing, finance or human resources. These workers have skills retailers can use right away and they shouldn’t have difficulty finding a professional retailing position quickly.

For blue-collar workers, whose skills are directly related to manufacturing goods, there are bigger challenges, especially for those who may be lacking the strong people skills relished by retailers. But for many, retailing will offer extensive training opportunities.

"You are probably not going to start at the type of salary you had at a manufacturing plant, but again there’s an opportunity to move ahead," said Mr. Woolford.

It’s essential to look at the long-term opportunities, said Alan Kearns, founder of the Toronto-based national career coaching company CareerJoy.

"Short-term you may have taken a salary hit, but keep in mind that in the long-term, people are running stores and making a good living at it," he said.

"There’s a lot of negativity in the world economy right now, that’s a fact," said Mr. Kearns. "So the question becomes, ‘How do you adapt yourself to the new reality?’"

Taking courses to prepare for a career in retailing can expand options and help people break into more advanced positions, Mr. Woolford noted.

Securing a diploma at a community college or a degree from a university could qualify someone for a junior management position, or for working in a specialized area such as retail buying or marketing, said Mr. Woolford.

Retailers are also among the largest employers of information technology professionals. "More than two million Canadians worked in retail last year, about an eighth of the entire labour force, so we got this very, very large labour force and a significant portion of it is technology driven."

Paul McElhone, associate director of the School of Retailing and the Canadian Institute of Retailing and Services at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, noted that retailers, particularly in Western Canada, are paying considerably higher wages as they confront labour shortages.

Graduates of university degree programs, such as those with a bachelor of commerce, commonly make between $15 and $20 an hour in their first retailing jobs, according to Mr. McElhone. It’s common for managers of major retailing stores with over 100 employees to be rewarded with salaries well into six digits, he said.

The need for retailing managers will only grow in coming years, as there will soon be a bulge of senior-level workers looking to retire. "Everyone is looking for the next generation of management," said Mr. McElhone.