For Fashion and Retail, Health Care Could Be Key Issue

Attracting quality individuals to a career in retail and fashion is hard to do when the industry is notorious for lackluster benefits and long hours, but...

Attracting quality individuals to a career in retail and fashion is hard to do when the industry is notorious for lackluster benefits and long hours, but the upcoming presidential election could result in positive change, particularly in the area of health care.

This story first appeared in the December 3, 2007 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

And while it is too soon to conclude which candidate would be good for fashion and retail — many haven’t yet articulated specifics about their views on immigration, labor, commerce and health care issues — the Democratic party seems to have a lead over its Republican counterparts, at least when it comes to health care issues, according to industry consultants and analysts.

The Democratic candidates are: Joseph Biden, Hillary Clinton, Christopher Dodd, John Edwards, Dennis Kucinich, Barack Obama, Bill Richardson and Mike Gravel. The Republican candidate lineup is: Rudy Giuliani, Mike Huckabee, Duncan Hunter, John McCain, Ron Paul, Mitt Romney, Tom Tancredo and Fred Thompson.

Several industry executives discussed what the sector needs to be competitive and attractive as a career option, as well as speculated on which candidate might be best for the trade. These views are not endorsements, but rather perspectives on which candidates would serve the fashion and retail sectors the best.

“I think that companies have to make it known that there is a career path with jobs at retail, and that it is not just about plowing through Black Friday and Christmas sales at 5 in the morning. It’s about getting back those executive training programs that A&S and Gimbels used to have when those stores tried to recruit talent,” said Anne Maxfield, president of Project Solvers, an employment agency specializing in the fashion industry.

Still, while Maxfield would like to see more training programs, the immediate need for the industry is that it needs “more affordable health care.

“Politically, I think the leading Democratic candidates have the more comprehensive plans….Hillary Clinton probably has the most comprehensive health care plan out there. She might be best for the industry since, as New York’s senator, she knows the problems and issues for what is New York City’s second largest industry,” Maxfield concluded.

James Rice, credit analyst at F&D Reports Creditintel, observed that one of the drawbacks to attracting quality talent to retail is the pay scale, which isn’t as competitive as perhaps technology or finance. “It’s an issue for many retailers since everyone is trying to keep expenses down. It is hard to envision big pay increases or better benefits, especially with the way benefits have been cut. Of the candidates, Rudy Giuliani on the Republican side probably won’t be good for health care. He doesn’t believe in fixing the system since he thinks the one we have is OK. For the Democrats, Senators Obama and Clinton seem to have a better idea on what’s needed for improved health care, particularly Clinton since she’s learned from mistakes when as first lady she tried to get universal health care coverage formulated.”

Hal Reiter, chief executive officer of executive search firm Herbert Mines Associates, observed: “The Democrats have been more aggressive in their proposed health plans than the Republicans, but that’s not necessarily better for retail overall. Those plans in terms of health care may be more attractive for employees, but is that also good for businesses? While recruiting and training executives are important, the younger ones are looking initially less at health care and more at compensation. They are comparing [themselves] with their peer groups in investment banking, for example, which pays more than the entry level [job] at retail.”

Ilse Metchek, executive director of the California Fashion Association, observed, “No one has really illuminated what their labor policies are, such as regarding living wages. Health care issues are wrapped around the illegal immigration issue, so you can’t deal with one without dealing with the other.”

Metchek believes it doesn’t matter who is elected president, explaining that it’s really the composition of the entire political system that is key. “A lot of [Congressional] seats are open, and whoever fills those seats could swing [the decision-making] either way. The health care matter is really a state’s rights issue. I don’t see a mandated federal health care plan. There are also so many variables on costs between California and New York and even Wisconsin. It’ll be more interesting to see who are the new governors.”

For retail consultant Walter Loeb, while the Democrats seem in front of the curve when it comes to health care, he’s concerned that policies overall concerning free trade would put a damper on commerce. “While [former president] Bill Clinton is a free trader, his wife Hillary is more of a protectionist. Many of the other candidates are, too, and either don’t believe or express themselves for free trade. I have a candidate that I think would be excellent for commerce and retail in general, and the person is New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.”

On the issue of commerce and trade, Andrew Jassin, managing director of the New York consulting firm Jassin-O’Rourke Group, thinks none of the candidates has a platform about consumerism. “In my opinion, the best one for retail is the one who will start protecting and developing manufacturing and [have the U.S.] become an importer again,” he said. As for making the industry a more attractive career path, Jassin noted that more vocational training schools are needed, as well as better communication at the high school level informing soon-to-be graduating students on career options and opportunities for those not electing college.

Stanley Officina, president of Ultimate Financial Solutions, said he’s “hard-pressed to come up with a candidate that is good for our industry or generally for the economy and the American public.” He explained that it is too soon to make any judgments since the candidates are delivering sound bites as they jockey for position within each party.

That said, Officina believes the one big, and possibly defining, issue is health care. Officina blasted the current health care system: “What we have here is almost as bad as Third World countries in terms of…vast portions of the population being unable to afford coverage, and therefore passing it up and their kids not having coverage.”

According to Emmanuel Weintraub, of the consulting firm that bears his name, “I think the person who has the best all-around grasp is Hillary, especially since health care in this country is a disaster….She understands what the workers need and I think for retail, she’s going to be the best.”

Stephen Wayne, chairman of SOS Management, which manages such brands as B.U.M. Equipment, thinks health care and other benefits are key components when it comes to attracting talent to the fashion and retail business. Wayne said what this country needs is universal health care that is affordable for everyone. But who might be best from the current pool of candidates? He isn’t sure. “I don’t think anyone has come out with real specifics yet. Everyone is just criticizing what President Bush has done, but no one is giving specific ideas. Hillary Clinton may be too polarizing to win the election. This would be a good time for an independent to run.”