The WorkPlace rolls out program to build and sustain careers in retail

By Kevin Zimmerman

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Backed by a grant received from The Chicago Cook Workforce Partnership made possible by the Walmart Foundation, The WorkPlace is rolling out its Retail Career Academy, offering training and support for career pathways in retail as well as job search and placement services.

The initiative will receive $400,000 per year for two years.

According to WorkPlace President and CEO Joe Carbone, the academy is designed to not only help unemployed and underemployed workers return to employment but also to aid Connecticut retailers in finding skilled workers who can be set upon career paths with their companies.

“We want to help an employee move upwards, to keep a good job and build a career,” Carbone said. “The benefit for employers – which they don’t always realize in retail – is that they can actually save money in the long run in terms of training and hiring costs by retaining employees. The vast majority of employers don’t think that way yet. Preparing the core of their work force to stick and stay is not at the top of their to-do list.”

Carbone said the situation boils down to simple math.

“At Wendy’s they go through the time and expense of training employees, who three weeks later move to take a job at McDonald’s for 20 cents more an hour,” he said. “It’s really in the employer’s best interests to try and retain employees at every level.”

According to the Center for American Progress, for positions paying $30,000 or less — which includes more than half of all U.S. workers — the typical cost of replacing an employee is 16 percent of an employee’s annual salary. In other words, the cost to replace a retail employee making $10 an hour would be $3,328.

According to WorkPlace data, the retail sector supports one in four American jobs, a total of 42 million workers. In southwestern Connecticut, more than 11 percent of employment can be found in the retail sector.

Walmart Foundation Director Gayatri Agnew said the group decided to “go all in” on leveraging its strengths to help build retail careers last year, when it announced that it would invest $100 million over five years in the space.

As part of that effort, it granted $10.9 million to The Chicago Cook recently Workforce Partnership, which provides free services to job seekers and businesses, to select 10 workforce development boards across the country seeking funding for innovative retail job training services. From dozens of applicants, Chicago Cook chose 10 recipients, including The WorkPlace.

“We expect this to lead to a catalytic shift in how retail careers are developed and maintained,” Agnew said. “It’s a win-win-win – it makes things better for the worker, for the company and for business.”

She added that about 75 percent of Walmart management started their careers as hourly workers at the retail behemoth. On the corporate side, Walmart has spent in excess of $2 billion in training, education and wages for its U.S. workers, she added.

Retail Career Academy is being modeled after The WorkPlace’s Southwestern Connecticut Health CareeRx Academy, which Carbone said “has been extraordinarily successful.” Begun in 2011, that project — a partnership of health care providers, educators, trainers and community-based organizations, created with funding from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Labor — has enrolled 1,044 eligible participants, with 815 candidates entering healthcare-specific occupational skills training.

With RCA, “I told [program manager] Mike Stokes to spend as much time working with employers as participants in the project,” Carbone said, “to prove the quality of the people we’re training. We want to walk with them step by step to make sure they’re confident in moving forward.”

Classes are being held at American Job Centers around the state, with the first orientation classes taking place the week of Sept. 5. Carbone said The WorkPlace received about 90 applicants for its first class of 25, “which was really exciting. We appealed in the right places to the right folks in the right places. These are people who view their employment as the starting point of a career, not ‘just a job’.”

Adults eligible for the program must be at least 18 years old, residents of towns in southwest Connecticut (Ansonia, Beacon Falls, Bridgeport, Darien, Derby, Easton, Fairfield, Greenwich, Monroe, New Canaan, Norwalk, Oxford, Seymour, Shelton, Stamford, Stratford, Trumbull, Weston, Westport, and Wilton), have a high school diploma or GED and have reliable transportation and/or willingness to take public transportation. Participants can be dislocated workers, unemployed, incumbent workers and self-employed.

Included are a two-week seminar to deliver core retail skills and a five-week “boot camp” for job-readiness training. Services offered include sales training to obtain a National Retail Federation Certification; a career readiness course emphasizing video resumes and writing; professional brand marketing; interview skills; and job placement assistance.

Participants are expected to be a mix of entry-level and experienced workers, with RCA becoming a hub of training and hiring for southwestern Connecticut’s retail employers, Carbone added.

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