By  on June 4, 2007

NEW YORK — Attracting qualified candidates and keeping them in the retail and service industry is not an easy task for employers in a sector that has one of the highest employee turnover rates.

Atlantic Cape Community College in New Jersey has one solution. It has teamed with the National Retail Federation to offer training to future retail employees, a program that focuses on improving customer service and at the same time providing jobs to the unemployed. ACCC unveiled its Institute for Service Excellence at the Hamilton Mall in Mays Landing last month. It is one of the 24 training programs sponsored by the NRF.

"The emerging retail industry is the next step in Atlantic Cape's development," said Patricia Owens, dean of continuing education and resource development at the college.

"I believe overall [retail] employees do not have enough training," said Kathy Mance, vice president at NRF. "People do not understand retailing. You can't walk off the street and get a job in retail and do well. There are standards and industry credentials."

While ACCC offered retail training for three years at the One Stop Center in Atlantic City, the new location at Hamilton Mall provides students with the ability to directly interact and learn from possible employers.

"The Hamilton Mall is a great place for us to be located," Owens said. "Transportation in the area is difficult and the mall is the one place that is a meeting ground for families and is a gathering place for the community."

With help from Kravco-Simon Development Corp., which operates Hamilton Mall and provided a five-year lease with all accompanying costs, as well as donations from local organizations, the college was able to rebuild a vacant space in the mall.

The 4,000-square-foot space, located in the corner of the mall near Sears, houses two classrooms, a computer lab, conference room, resource room and offices for full-time staff and part-time instructors.

Four years ago, ACCC partnered with the Atlantic Cape May Workforce Investment Board to determine how the school could further help those who are unemployed or underemployed in the area while assisting local retailers.The result is a five-week, 140-hour program that utilizes the standards and materials developed by the NRF to teach students the basics of the service industry. Local and national retailers and service providers including Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa, Ecolab, Kmart, Lowe's, Macy's, Marshall's Retail Group, The Home Depot, Trump Entertainment and Wyndham Resorts have committed to hiring graduates who meet their qualifications. Executives from these firms also serve as guest speakers and mentors.

The program provides students with a retail readiness assessment test, computer training, career counseling, job bank and fairs, as well as workshops. ISE also offers training for people currently in the industry who are looking to advance in their career. There are 21 students currently enrolled in the program.

"If we have done our job right, there will be a perceptible change in customer service," Mance said. "Sales associates will sell better, which retailers will be happy about since it helps the bottom line."

The goal of programs like ISE is to help decrease the turnover rate of sales associates, which will save employers time and money, as well as make people aware of retail careers.

"Retailing does not have to be solely a summer or part-time job," Mance said. "This training can be the beginning of a career path in retail and help sales associates move to management positions or other aspects of retail."

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