By and  on July 10, 2006

NEW YORK — Help Wanted: College graduates with a passion for retail and fashion. Must be team players. Long hours, low pay. Potential for rapid advancement.

Bolstered by more aggressive recruiting, the potential for creativity and a glamorous aura, the retail and fashion industries are attracting talent that might otherwise have been enticed by Wall Street or Madison Avenue.

"This crop of graduates is very competitive," said Lee Roever, vice president of human resources for Neiman Marcus. "In general, the students are more realistic today than they have been. The work ethic is a little stronger than it has been."

Abercrombie & Fitch recruits at Ivy League institutions such as Harvard, Yale, Brown, Cornell and Dartmouth, as well as design schools, bringing in about 40 trainees annually. Job candidates take aptitude tests, and an appreciation and curiosity about the business is more important than a specific major.

They hear lectures from A&F experts in sourcing, planning, allocation, merchandising and technical design, and learn about what A&F and its brands represent. The trainees are schooled in planning a business and how to assess its health. They are drilled in the disciplines involved in fashion retailing and work on teams usually comprising a planner, allocator and merchant, all interacting with the sourcing function.

The trainees have responsibility to help implement the merchandising plan, and typically start as an assistant merchant shadowing a senior merchant. The philosophy is to get young people managing businesses in a season or two.

Neiman Marcus will hire about 120 graduates, which is more than in previous years. "We have a new retail concept, Cusp, which has put demand on those buying offices," Roever said. In addition, the planning division is growing, creating more career opportunities.

Although a student's major is less critical for some retail organizations, Neiman's prizes finance, marketing, accounting and management concentrations. "Our buying positions are significantly larger today than they were three or four years ago," Roever said. "It's more important that we find business majors. We can't just have a merchandise selector....We're competing for graduates on the management and marketing side with a lot of the accounting firms."Graduates of fashion programs with an emphasis on design tend not to fare well at Neiman's. "We need students who can do basic retail math," Roever said. "They must be time-sensitive and able to process information pretty quickly."

Dallas-based Neiman's visits Boston College, Cornell University, Penn State, Wellesley College, the Fashion Institute of Technology, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Vanderbilt University, Florida A&M, Texas A&M, the University of Texas, UCLA and Santa Clara University.

When Neiman's interviews on a campus it looks for a specific behavior set and competencies, Roever said. If prospective hires pass those hurdles, they go to headquarters for a week and a half of group and individual projects. Students are rated on their performance and those at the top of the list may get job offers.

Gap Inc. generates a lot of interest among students. In the 2006 Universum Undergraduate Survey, which polled 37,000 college students about the corporations where they would most want to work, Gap ranked first among retailers, and 30th overall. Target ranked 32nd, Best Buy, 73rd; Wal-Mart, 90th; Limited Brands, 93rd; Walgreens, 111th; Federated, 140th, and Home Depot, 148th.

Gap starts recruiting in the fall, for hiring in the following spring. "Probably the most important criterion is to have a passion for the business," said Kate Aiken, senior director of college recruiting. "We look for students really interested in retail or fashion. A sense of social responsibility tends to really attract them to our business.

"Beyond that, we look for strong leadership experience such as with clubs or in sports and for strong communications and analytical skills," Aiken said. "We look at students from any major, but we do tend to see undergraduates with majors in business, liberal arts and fashion merchandising."

Gap puts trainees on different career tracks through management training programs on the merchandising, planning and production side, and also on the stores side. The company has seen a 64 percent increase in college hires in the past two years.

"It's not due to turnover, it's due to the expansion of business," Aiken said. "Old Navy continues to grow its stores' organization." She also cited two start-ups in the past year, the Forth & Towne division and more recently, the online shoe division."We continue to move people up and need entry-level talent," she said. "We definitely have a list of schools that we target," including Indiana University, the University of Arizona, Cornell and Northwestern.

"We have developed [training] programs to expose them to different parts of the business, whether in headquarters or in stores," Aiken said. "There is quite a bit of structure, on-the-job experience and training....They have regular checkpoints where they receive feedback and coaching."

After training, the individuals typically become associate merchandisers or planners, or assistant production managers at headquarters. In stores, they are often placed as supervisors managing a team in customer service or logistics.

Several human resources executives said that students become interested in retailing when it is performance-oriented. When Gap recruits, students get most turned on when the company shows up with an alumnus from that campus who may be leading a multimillion dollar business. "Students really like to hear how retailing is such a high performance-driven culture," Aiken said.

At Gap, there is not one typical career path. An associate merchandiser at Old Navy in a year or two could transfer to Banana Republic or be promoted to the outlet division, or may try planning instead of merchandising.

However, without anything more than an outsider's awareness of the industry, "Retail is not the first thing people gravitate to when they consider careers after college," said Tim Plunkett, divisional vice president for recruitment and placement for Federated Department Stores. "It's incumbent to educate students about what the job is all about, the scope of responsibility, the ability to have an impact on the business and to see the results quickly. It's also important to stress that retailing is an industry where you can move up very quickly. "

Federated's recruitment efforts tend to focus on schools such as the University of Pennsylvania, Emory University, the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Virginia and Syracuse University, among others. "The major is not as important as the motivation, the attitude, the passion and commitment they bring to the business," Plunkett said. The level of recruiting this year will be about the same as last year, Plunkett said, with Federated absorbing much talent from May Department Stores, which it bought last year."You can really change the caliber of the organization when you have a commitment to college recruiting," Plunkett said.

Larry McClure, senior vice president of human resources at Liz Claiborne, said that unless a graduate is specifically looking for a career in design, merchandising, IT or finance, there is not a degree requirement. "Our interns come from over 30 colleges and universities from as far away as the University of Missouri to as close as FIT and have diverse educational and work backgrounds.

"We convert roughly 2 percent of our interns to full-time associates," McClure said. "Obviously, we look for design and merchandising talent from FIT, Parsons and the Rhode Island School of Design, but cast a wider net for positions in sales and other front-end positions. An MBA is not essential, but certainly helpful when looking for candidates in finance and strategic planning."

At Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the benefit of recruiting "is that we have such unmatched career opportunities with our operations business, real estate division, aviation, merchandising, logistics, information systems and finance areas, just to name a few," said Michelle Whitehead, senior director of professional recruitment. "So you can imagine, when we go to a college campus, we really can be open to numerous majors and be able to speak to those who are still undecided."

Wal-Mart will hire more college graduates this year in the information systems division, which has hundreds of entry-level jobs. "We also had a record number of MBA interns here this summer," she added. "For certain positions in the company an MBA can be extremely beneficial. "

For American Eagle Outfitters, as well, the major matters less than the candidate's personality and interests. "We've had liberal arts majors who have gravitated toward design," said Tom DiDonato, executive vice president of human resources.

More important is a graduate's willingness and ability to work in a group. "We have an unbelievably collaborative environment," he said. "Somebody that puts the spotlight on themselves and is not used to working in a team may have a hard time."

The company, which recruits from schools such as the University of Michigan and Indiana University, will hire 20 to 25 people this year from campuses.American Eagle works its employees "very hard," DiDonato said. But he added that company surveys indicate individuals are happy because the work is engaging. "Everybody contributes to our company's results," he said. "People that come right out of school feel they're making an impact."

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