By  on May 18, 2010

The prospects for new college graduates looking for fashion and retail jobs are improving — but still aren’t easy.

During the recession, many firms pulled back from campuses and put the brakes on their recruiting. Some have slowly returned to hiring, but not nearly at the robust levels of three years ago.

Another problem facing the current crop of grads is that many fashion firms, particularly smaller ones, have reduced payrolls and have brought in unpaid interns to take up the slack. Despite some 290,000 jobs created in April in areas ranging from manufacturing to professional services, the unemployment rate for the wholesale and retail trade was 9.5 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

But it’s not all doom and gloom.

According to the 2010 job outlook from the National Association of College and Employers, firms plan to hire 5.3 percent more new college graduates in 2009-2010 than in 2008-2009. That’s the first positive news since October 2008, when employers predicted a 1.3 percent gain in college hiring. That projection dropped in fall 2008, when the economy nose-dived. College hiring has been in negative territory ever since, hitting bottom in spring 2009 when companies reported hiring almost 22 percent fewer grads than a year earlier.

The uptick in expected hiring provides hope for college grads seeking jobs in retailing. Accounting services, engineering services and retail employers top the list of companies extending offers to recent bachelor’s degree graduates, according to a NACE survey released last month.

Ed Koc, director of strategic and foundation research at NACE, said these retailers range from large department stores such as Macy’s and big-box retailers such as Lowe’s, Home Depot and Bed, Bath & Beyond, to small boutiques. “While hiring has increased by 5 percent, after a 22 percent decline, it’s still not at the levels of 2007 and 2008,” he said.

WWD contacted retailers, fashion companies, universities and headhunters about the job market for the Class of 2010, especially for those looking to enter the retail-fashion sector. The report card is mixed.

“It continues to be a challenge,” said Elaine Hughes, chief executive officer of E.A. Hughes Associates, an executive search firm. “One of the things that can give anybody a leg up, regardless of the school, is if they have had internships. If they haven’t worked in a retail situation, they’re more behind the eight ball.”

Hughes said a lot of new grads aren’t familiar with the different concepts, including value-based businesses such as Ross Stores Inc. or The TJX Cos. Inc., both of which are expanding and recruit on college campuses. She said “the model is changing” because of retail consolidation, the globalization of the industry and opportunities moving from domestic manufacturing to overseas.

Macy’s Inc., J.C. Penney Co. Inc., Target Corp., Kohl’s Corp., Liz Claiborne Inc., Li & Fung Ltd., The TJX Cos. Inc. and Polo Ralph Lauren Corp. are among the companies that aggressively recruit on college campuses for interns and full-time positions.

RETAILERS

Macy’s has doubled the number of interns being hired this summer for its stores organization, and the number of full-time trainees has also increased, said Anne Voller, vice president for executive recruitment and college relations. “With the My Macy’s rollout, we decided to put more bench strength into the intern and full-time program,” she said.

Voller said the company puts significant effort into hiring summer interns with the intention that they will be offered full-time positions upon graduation. Macy’s hires interns in two areas — the New York merchant program, where students work with buyers and planners, and stores organization, where students work with store managers and sales managers at Macy’s units across the U.S.

Voller, who has a team of 12 recruiters, said Macy’s visits 40 college campuses (sometimes Macy’s chairman, ceo and president Terry Lundgren will show up on campus, too) and recruits all majors, ranging from business to fashion retailing to psychology. “We look for leadership potential, smart students that are interested in retail, that have good critical-thinking skills, are involved in campus, have juggled their multiple priorities and have an ability to be flexible,” said Voller. She said Macy’s doesn’t recruit M.B.A.’s, but Bloomingdale’s will bring in a few M.B.A.’s in the buying and planning area.

Macy’s expects to bring in 150 summer interns and hire 300 college graduates for full-time positions this year, said Voller.

The company’s retail training program for college grads lasts about 10 weeks, and new hires get placed into rotational assignments with a different business, or move around to different stores. “We’re looking for future leaders of the company,” she said.

Penney’s also offers a 10-week internship program, where 125 interns (versus about 100 last summer) were selected to learn firsthand the daily operations of a store. As part of a team, the sales manager interns participate in sales leadership, inventory flow, event planning and merchandise presentations. A Penney’s spokeswoman said 80 percent of last year’s interns were offered full-time positions in the retailer’s training program upon graduating from college. Of those, 70 percent accepted, she said. Last year, Bloomberg BusinessWeek ranked Penney’s among the 40 “Best U.S. Companies for Undergraduate Internships,” coming it at No. 27.

Gap Inc. offers a competitive nine-month training program for grads that focuses on three core areas of the business: merchandising, production and inventory management.

The number of people who have been hired this year “is consistent with what we’ve done in the past,” said a spokeswoman. All of the jobs are based at corporate headquarters in San Francisco. After completing a training program, participants have the opportunity to work full-time as assistant merchandisers, inventory planning analysts or assistant production managers. Gap also offers a 10-week summer internship program in San Francisco.

Sherry Lang, senior vice president of global communications at The TJX Cos. Inc., said the retailer plans to hire as many as 150 college graduates or “early career” professionals into its corporate merchandise training program this year. The program was created specifically to develop the quantitative and fashion planning skills needed by off-price retail professionals, said Lang. TJX’s divisions include TJ Maxx, Marshalls, Winners, HomeGoods, TK Maxx, AJ Wright and HomeSense. “TJX’s anticipated hiring of new college graduates this year is almost three times what it was last year, as the company took a conservative approach to hiring…due to the unstable nature of the economy,” said Lang. The company has also expanded the number of summer interns.

TJX, based in Framingham, Mass., has started to expand its recruitment program into a more global initiative, targeting Europe, one of the company’s growth markets. As a result, TK Maxx, headquartered in the U.K., is creating its first pan-European center, bringing recruitment and internships under the same management umbrella, said Lang.

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