Edcon meets skills shortage head on

In a country with a massive skills shortage in almost every sector, Edcon is one company doing its bit to change that. Aggressively recruiting graduates from across Southern Africa, the company grounds them in the principles of retail through their retail academy; skills with which no university can provide graduates, says Edcon.

One such graduate is James Hill, a former Stellenbosch student with a BCom degree in finance and economics.
Hill, from Namibia, is one of nearly 1 000 young graduates lured to join Edcon’s Retail Academy. In a bid to gather and create the skills the company needs, Edcon set about recruiting people like Hill and putting them through a curriculum aimed at developing buyers, planners, operations experts and future MBA recipients who will work for the company.

The Retail Academy started in 2003 and has almost 1 000 black graduates who have completed or are about to complete the company’s nine-month training course, after which they will be employed in merchant or store management jobs across the country.

The academy, on the old Technikon SA grounds, houses 200 students from South Africa and neighbouring countries and hosts other courses for employees from the Edcon group. Hill, who comes from Walvisbaai, says he decided to apply for the course because he believes retail is more interesting than a high-paying but unstimulating desk job. He sees retail as ever-changing, challenging and very people-focused. His friend, fellow Namibian Amy Liguma, agrees. And for Liguma the theory module of Edcon’s operations management development programme, which is followed by in-service training, makes the course an “ongoing process of learning”.

“It’s very different from a university because you can apply everything you’ve learned,” she says. “It’s improving what we already know and building on it.” Both Liguma and Hill are on the programme. The nine-month course will prepare them to fill management posts in any of the company’s 1 140 stores located throughout South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho and Swaziland.

The academy also offers the merchant development training programme to new graduates and an MBA degree to management staff. Eighteen people have already received an MBA in retail management, while another 15 are busy with the degree.

Dr Urin Ferndale, retail operations and former group human resources director, says the Edcon academy does two things — it allows the company to invest in its staff by helping them to improve their skills through training. It also actively creates the skills that Edcon needs but which the educational institutions of this country do not provide.

“We’ve also found the people we bring in fresh from university don’t know enough about retail. The academy does two things,” says Ferndale. “It professionalises the retail industry and develops the skills we require.”

Many sectors are experiencing similar problems in that degrees just aren’t relevant to the industry, says Ferndale, and the academy is Edcon’s way of addressing these problems.

Operations knowledge and good store management, in particular, are crucial to Edcon’s success. The OMDP that Hill and Liguma have begun is designed to meet the company’s need for these skills.

Ferndale makes the point that a store manager might not sound like a glamorous job but, when you consider that Johannesburg’s Eastgate mall’s Edgars store has an annual turnover of R300-million, the title of “store manager” takes on a whole new meaning.

Edcon needs people with buying and planning know-how. The academy’s management development programme has been created to hone these skills. In the retail field buyers need to be trend spotters who can identify an emerging fad and ensure that it makes it on to Edcon’s many shop floors. Planners are in high demand too. These are individuals with the ability to profile the kind of shoppers each store has and the needs and expectations that they might have — from what books and magazines they will expect to see on CNA’s shelves to what sizes of plain white T-shirt they will require from their local Edgars and, of course, how much money they will have to spend on either.

Skills such as these are in demand internationally, says Ferndale, and the company has lost a number of skilled individuals because their knowledge is so “transportable”. With an additional 1 000 learnerships granted to Edcon by the wholesale and retail Seta, the academy seems likely to keep growing.

But can the company place all this new talent? With its aggressive growth rate — five stores are being opened each week — this shouldn’t be a problem. “We don’t foresee ourselves having trouble placing these people because of our growth,” says Ferndale.

In addition to Edcon’s 1 140 stores, the company is “filling in the gaps”, says Ferndale, ensuring that smaller towns across South Africa will have an Edcon outlet. It’s in stores like these that a number of graduates will be deployed once they are finished their studies to gain experience before moving on to more metropolitan stores. Graduates are contractually bound to work wherever Edcon wants them to for at least a year. If they leave the company before that year is completed, they have to pay for their education, which amounts to about R15 000.

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