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How to attract talent to the grocery industry

If I could relive my student days, I would pursue a career in grocery. OK, I’m probably a bit biased since I write about this industry. But I do think grocery is one of the most vibrant careers available for young people, especially those who have an interest in business, marketing or retail.

Unfortunately, the grocery sector has a serious image problem among the university set. And it’s losing out big time in the war for talent. Rather than apply to retailers, graduates are going straight for jobs with consumer packaged goods companies.

Take one 22-year-old business grad in Toronto I spoke with recently. Though he spent every summer through university working in a supermarket, a career there, or with any other grocer, was definitely an afterthought. “It was my Plan B,” he explains. Today, this bright young man works for one of the large CPG companies. He’s not alone.

“Grocers must first become more aggressive recruiters”

As many as 20 per cent of grads have worked part time at grocery stores or other retailers. But few aim for a career with these firms. So what’s the problem? Is the grocery industry simply not sexy enough?

That may be part of the reason, says Hershi Rubinoff, president of CPG Connect, a networking site for the consumer packaged goods and retail industries in Canada. “CPG companies have tangible products that grads can relate to,” she says. Plus, CPG companies have big ad budgets and so the new kids may get to work on TV or other marketing campaigns.

The other reason is CPGs are simply more aggressive at recruitment. They attend university career fairs, host lunch-andlearns and sponsor student association events, says Rubinoff. No wonder graduating business and marketing students flood the big CPG companies with their resumés every spring.

But here’s the thing: Grocers have much to offer students career-wise. The obvious one, which your average 21-year-old may not appreciate yet, is stability. You can start your career in grocery and end there 30 or 40 years later–maybe even with the same company. Plus, many grocers still offer decent benefits and pension plans. Not many other industries today can make either of those claims.

As for that sex appeal, grocery has lots. The most interesting stuff happening right now with brands isn’t in TV commercials, it’s deep in the aisles–shopper marketing, sustainability and the use of technology (think Loblaw’s new recipe app or Sobeys’ seafood traceability system). Rubinoff suggests grocers incorporate their media campaigns into what they’re sharing with students on campus to “show it’s not just about stocking groceries.” Of course, grocers must first become more aggressive recruiters. They must identify talented staff and retain them by providing opportunities to grow in the business.

The good news? Some are already doing that. In Ottawa, grocer François Bouchard told me about one of his part-time employees, also a commerce student, who was job hunting for something permanent after graduation. “I asked her to consider staying on board. She’d get benefits and full-time hours, and be my service manager in charge of 17 employees,” says Bouchard. This grad ended up staying with him for three years until she got married and moved away.

Loblaw Companies’  Grad-at-Loblaw program has a 93 percent retention rate

Another retailer doing an excellent job is Loblaw Companies, through its two-year-old Grad-at-Loblaw program. “When our grads are hired into the program, they’re considered full-time employees of our business. [They] go through an 18-month rotation and at the end are given a role within the stream they selected,” says Michelle Edwards, Grad-at-Loblaw’s senior director. About 390 students have been through the course already, and the retentionrate is an impressive 93 percent.

Grads in the program are exposed to every part of Loblaw’s business, even spending time in “learning stores,” to get handson experience and a real sense of how a store operates. Victoria Bennett, a recent graduate, is now an assistant product manager of breakfast, coffee and tea for Loblaw. She says the program gave her opportunities to learn from key people, including the man at the helm, Galen Weston.

Loblaw recognizes it’s building a pipeline for the future by investing in talent that understands all aspects of its business. Now if only we could get more retailers to stop being complacent in the war for talent. Then more students would make grocery their Plan A.

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