Andrew Kaufman started his career at Crown American as an intern in the mail room. Today, he's vice president of partnership marketing. Thanks to training programs, an education reimbursement plan, and a policy of looking within its walls for talent, the Johnstown, Pa., company is able to recruit, promote and retain the best talent. It's a human resources approach Bob Poline, a San Diego, Calif.-based executive recruiter, would applaud. He says the retail industry as a whole hasn't done enough to ensure a steady stream of qualified workers and as a result there's a dearth of middle-managers.

Industry experts say not enough is done, for instance, to whet the appetites of college graduates on the prowl for a career. “Many view retail as a stopover and don't see themselves having a lifelong career in the industry,” comments Kaufman, who has also headed Crown's human resources department.

Crown took steps to change the perception by partnering with local colleges near its headquarters, bringing in student interns and introducing them to the industry. The students don't spend their time performing trivial grunt work, either.

For instance, to groom future marketing experts, Crown chooses students for the corporate marketing department and teaches them what the positions involve and gives them hands-on experience writing articles, putting together promotions with an in-house ad agency and updating the website. “We try to make it a meaningful experience so they can walk away with something to put on their résumés,” says Christine Menna, vice president of corporate communications and marketing. “It's enabled us to attract some of the better students, and we've placed several in assistant marketing director positions after their graduation.”

Chicago-based General Growth Properties, too, has taken an active role courting young people. It recently test-drove an internship program, GGP Prodigies, at the Broadway Mall in Hicksville, N.Y. GGP Prodigies selected local college students, teamed them up with mentors and educated them with hands-on work in various aspects of the business — management, leasing and merchandising.

“It piques their interest and illustrates some of the opportunities available in the industry,” comments Judy Herbst, GGPs human resources vice president. GGP also benefits from fresh ideas from Gen Yers, a critical demographic group for retail. GGP teamed up with a local high school to introduce even younger people to the industry. It invites five students each year to work one day per week at its headquarters. The students rotate department to department — doing real work — and getting a taste of the business.

Poline says such internship programs are critical to the long-term employment health of the industry. “There are a lot fewer people in the industry than there were a few years ago, and often we end up playing musical chairs — just moving candidates from one company to the next,” he says. “Not enough companies are bringing in new people and too few want to take the time to train.” Using a tidy sports metaphor, he says it's critical to have a bench tap when someone leaves or goes on the injured list. “Few have a bench to go to,” Poline observes.

Retaining the best

The GGP Prodigies program ties in with one of the company's retention strategies — rewarding employees for brilliant ideas. The Prodigies program was the brainchild of an employee who approached management with the plan. GGP allowed her to try the plan out at one center, and now it's being rolled out in eight more markets. General Growth plans to take it nationwide.

Herbst and others say retaining the best employees involves more than just decent compensation and a standard benefits package. “I don't want to diminish the importance of good pay and benefits, but now that just keeps you in the game,” says Herbst. “Employees are expecting more. Does someone care about my growth and development? Do I have the tools and support to reach my goals? We benchmark those issues annually.”

Shawn Herdman, Crown's human resources director agrees. “Here, people can constantly look on the horizon and see a role for themselves beyond the job they're in. That's often more meaningful than compensation. A good environment where employees are treated as professionals and rewarded for performance is, in itself, a retention tool.”

Perks — giving people birthdays off, health or golf club memberships and car allowances — also go a long way in fostering loyalty. “Companies have to be creative about incentives and look at the little things — that often don't cost much — that mount up in the long run,” Poline says.

Looking beyond retail borders

To bring in fresh blood, the pros suggest recruiting outside the retail industry too. For instance, people leasing suburban office space likely have skills that easily transfer to retail leasing. In the past five years, Crown started recruiting community leaders — executive directors at chambers of commerce and economic development experts — where its centers are located. Such people have transferable skills, are networked in and already understand the locals. The company argues it's easier to teach such people the industry, rather than finding someone with industry experience to whom it must teach the intimate workings of a community.

“There are numerous skills in other professions that can easily segue into retail. We don't deal in rocket science and we're not asking people to find a new formula for nuclear physics,” observes Poline. “You need a good personality fit, and people with the drive, energy and willingness to grow and learn the business.”

Elyse Umlauf-Garneau is a Chicago-based writer.