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Retail group launches training for entry level job seekers

New Rise Up program includes how to balance a cash drawer and check for counterfeit currency

Trying to stem high turnover in store jobs, non-profit groups and chains such as Walmart, Home Depot and the Home Shopping Network are launching a program to help people develop the skills to land entry-level jobs and advance in a retail career.

As more people shop online, stores say they need workers who come in with more knowledge and can offer better service. The training and credential program, led by the non-profit arm of the National Retail Federation trade group, includes sales and inventory basics, dealing with customers, how to use technology like kiosks and more.

"The skill gap is a huge challenge in America broadly,'' said Ellen Davis, a senior vice-president at the trade group and executive director of the NRF Foundation. "Talent is a significant challenge in retail at all levels.''

More than 20 major retailers including Neiman Marcus and Ashley Stewart have pledged general support for the Rise Up program being launched Sunday. It's part of a broader credential plan that would help workers move up that may include training for store supervisors and in specific areas like retail analytics.

Thirty-two per cent of all first jobs in the U.S. are in retail, the trade group says, and stores overall have more job openings now than they did a few years ago. Rising wages have increased competition for workers as people take better-paying jobs. The average hourly pay for cashiers and low-level retail sales staff is $9.26, according to a recent Hay Group study _ a level labour groups say still isn't enough to live on. The retail industry says store jobs can be a starting point toward bigger things.

In stores, entry-level work isn't just about folding clothes and ringing up sales. Beyond making change, the Rise Up program includes how to balance a cash drawer and checking for counterfeit currency. Employees also need to understand how stores and online sites work together, use up-to-date handhelds to check inventory, and solve customer-service issues.

"It's crisp, clear lessons,'' said James Rhee, CEO of clothing chain Ashley Stewart, which is among the retailers including HSN Inc. that will give the credential weight in their hiring. "It's not just about buying and selling. It's extremely service-oriented, but it's extremely more quantitative and it's all about the innovation of technology.''

The program offers 30 to 40 hours of classroom training or 15 hours of online training, and will be administered through non-profit groups and public education partners. The overall cost is $50, but many students will be able to get subsidies. The retailers involved are encouraging local nonprofits or high schools to start using it. Some might fund groups in areas where they're having a hard time hiring skilled workers. Some may use it to replace or supplement their own training.

How much of an impact this first industry credential could have remains to be seen. It follows a hodgepodge of certificates backed by government or foundation grants that didn't hold much sway. The NRF Foundation will evaluate the program at six to ten companies later this year to see if participants get jobs faster, stay longer and get raises faster. It'll make changes if necessary after that. Wal-Mart, which has training academies for its own workers, said it won't decide about using the credential in the hiring process until after the study.

Dress for Success, which worked with the NRF Foundation on a pilot program in New York with nine women, has seen most of them find work — including at an online merchant, a discounter and a clothing retailer.

"Our goal is to not just get them a job,'' said Amy Tashjian, senior director of worldwide programs for Dress for Success, "but to continue to build their confidence and to help them not just get a job but a career.''

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