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More than a decade after its last donation to Florida International University’s College of Business Administration, Miami-based retailer Burdines department store this year decided to open its pocketbook again and hand the college $200,000. But the gift wasn’t completely strings-free. The retailer expects to get something in return: more job applicants. “We didn’t have the number of applicants we thought we should have,” said Ann Rupert, Burdines’ senior vice president of human resources and part of a Burdines group that recently spoke at FIU’s College of Business Administration, where the gift will fund a retail-management program. Meanwhile, Seattle-based Nordstrom also made some campus visits recently, as it gears up for the November opening of its first department store in Florida, at the Town Center in Boca Raton. Store construction has yet to begin, but Nordstrom representatives have visited student-employment offices at Lynn University and Florida Atlantic University to establish recruiting relationships with those schools. “It’s too early to tell how things will transpire for us,” said Nordstrom spokeswoman Nancy Miyahira. “We’re confident we’ll find great people in Boca Raton.” It won’t be easy. As interest in jobs at brick-and-mortar stores dims in light of new-economy opportunities and thanks to a high employment rate overall, many industries are having a hard time finding qualified workers. Few are feeling the effects more than retailers, many of whom are hard at work to keep job applications coming and current employees happy. In South Florida, the hiring crunch comes at a time of avid retail expansion. The Dolphin Mall is under construction in Northwest Miami-Dade, Taubman Co. is building a regional mall in Wellington and the Rouse Co. broke ground for a new mall in Coral Gables and has begun the review process for another one in west Kendall. In Boca Raton, Nordstrom will compete for workers with the other 30 new stores also opening in Town Center. Not surprisingly, retail employment has been on a steady increase in South Florida for the past decade, with retailers adding an average of 2,500 jobs a year in each of Miami-Dade and Broward counties, according to figures from the Florida Department of Labor. The growth has been slower in Palm Beach County, where retailers have added an average of 1,400 jobs each year. (The figures include car dealers.) Specifically, retail accounted for 140,500 jobs in Broward County in 1999, or 21.2 percent of all jobs. In Miami-Dade, retail accounted for 178,900 in 1999, or 18 percent of the labor force. And in Palm Beach, there were 95,000 retail jobs in 1999, accounting for 20.1 percent of all jobs. College students have been a traditional pool of potential workers, but student-employment administrators warn that students these days have their pick of jobs, and it isn’t always retail. “Students are looking for something in the $10, $12 or $15 an hour (range),” says Barbara Terry, assistant director of student employment at FAU. “In the computer field, definitely they can get that. From retailers, I haven’t seen anything over $8.” Nationally, salaries for entry-level retail management positions for college graduates range between $29,000 and $33,000 according to the National Retail Federation, a trade group. But in South Florida, at least one survey shows lower salaries — beginning at about $21,000 for a retail manager, according to Economic Research Data, a consulting firm that draws its data from the U.S. Department of Labor. Lately, it’s becoming harder to get any South Floridian’s attention for a retail job, not just college students’. When the Aventura Mall held a job fair last June for the benefit of new retailers opening in the mall’s new wing, the turnout was disappointing. “Our merchants were out there from 9 to 12 on a Sunday morning. They got a few people, but not nearly the turnout they expected,” said Laura Nichols, the mall’s special events manager, who sent notices to local schools and the newspapers. And when Shops at Sunset Place in South Miami held its job fair, the turnout “was less than overwhelming,” said Scott Hanson, manager of the Niketown store. To counter the trend, retailers are taking approaches formerly reserved to attracting customers. They are stuffing help-wanted notices inside billing statement and soliciting job applications from walk-by traffic. “If we were fortunate enough to be able to put a [job-application] table outside the mall, we would do so,” said Tom Wheeland, vice president of human resources for FAO Schwarz, the New York landmark toy store that in has been expanding nationwide, including South Florida. This year, the retailer began setting up employment-application tables in the front of the store during busy times, such as Saturdays. Adding to the difficulty of luring workers is the need of many retailers to hire part-time workers and the perception that retail work involves nothing more than standing behind a counter. Burdines is hoping the program it helps fund at FIU will help change that perception. “Most people think of retail as the department store,” Rupert said. “They don’t understand that it’s a major business that has more than sales people on the sales floor. They don’t think of us as a place to go to work after college.” Still, many other retailers want more rank-and-file sales clerks, who may or may not pursue a long-term career. To attract them, some retailers are increasingly blending the line between customers and employees. Take FAO Schwarz, which says it hasn’t had difficulty staffing its South Florida stores. It has attracted workers by offering employees a 30-percent discount on store items, compared to the industry standard of about 20 percent. Also, the store markets its jobs not as work but as a way to, well, have a good time. “We’re not paying the most money of any retailer in South Florida,” concedes Wheeland, the retailer’s human resources vice president. “But what we do provide is a fun environment to work with and management that listens. The days are past when the manager can behave as a tyrant with employees and smooth as cream with the customers.” For example, even part-time employees go through formal coaching on how to engage customers in conversation and steer them to the cash register. Employees are encouraged to write up their success stories and post them in a store bulletin board. “It really builds their self esteem a great deal,” said Mark Heiser, manager of the FAO Schwarz store in Shops at Sunset Place. “Everyone is in the loop.” At Home Depot, the next recruitment effort has hit TV. The do-it-yourself home store recently began running TV advertisements in various markets, touting the company’s career opportunities. While the fast-growing chain says it has no problem attracting hundreds of applicants — it pays about $1 an hour more than other retailers in its market — until recently it grappled with a 40-percent employee turnover rate. “Our stores don’t appeal to everybody,” says spokesman Don Harrison. “You have to spend a lot of hours on your feet.” But while soliciting more applications, the company also became more selective. Job applications now are taken through in-store computerized kiosks the retailer recently deployed. Applicants take a skills test and watch a video that spells out all the frustrations of the job. Those who pass the test are called back for an interview. The database is shared among stores. The pre-screening system has reduced turnover to 11 percent, Harrison said. “Our challenge is to hire 10,000 associates every month,” Harrison said. “Once we bring them in, we want people to stay.”

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