The retail industry has an image problem, and the National Retail Federation wants to remedy it.

NRF is launching an initiative called “This is Retail: Careers, Community, Innovation” to put the spotlight on the retail industry’s good qualities that often are unrecognized, especially by young adults thinking about their job prospects. Among those are the opportunities for lasting retail careers; retailers’ connections to communities at home and abroad, and the role retail plays in driving innovation.

“We will counter the myths about our industry with research and stories that show the true face of retail, that in fact retail offers richly rewarding and diverse career opportunities, is central to communities big and small, and that retail is at the forefront of innovation,” said Matthew Shay, NRF president and chief executive officer, Thursday at the Global Retailing Conference in Tucson, Ariz.

He noted retail supports an estimated 42 million jobs in the U.S., or roughly one in four. “By fundamentally transforming the perception of retail, we will ensure the industry continues to thrive and grow,” he said.

To lay the foundation for the new initiative, the NRF conducted a survey with BIGinsight Research of 700 Americans aged 18 to 24 to discover what they prize in potential positions and employers. Forty percent of survey responders said they want their opinions heard; 31 percent want their decisions implemented, and 25 percent want the chance to “own” and manage projects.

When evaluating jobs, about 25 percent reported they’d like companies they are considering working for to have values that match theirs; roughly 18 percent said giving back to the community is important, and slightly less than 40 percent singled out technological skill as something they want to gain in their first job.

The survey also questioned college students about their job priorities. Around 70 percent said the top reason they’d be interested in a career in retail is because it is exciting compared with other industries; 43.6 percent said they are drawn to leadership opportunities in the industry, and 26 percent believed they could achieve a healthy work-life balance by choosing retail jobs.

During his speech, Shay said that young adults in retail would discover “you can make an impact right from the start, and it really is a meritocracy.”

He continued, “It’s easier in the retail industry in relative terms to actually achieve those [career] dreams inside the company.” And he emphasized the diversity of retail jobs, mentioning that there are auditing, accounting, computer programming and even animal training jobs within the sector.

Using a number of examples, Shay underscored that employees find advancement and longevity in retail careers; fulfill their desire to be part of their communities, and stay on the cutting edge of technology.

Carol Meyrowitz, ceo of The TJX Cos. Inc., has been with the company for 30 years, and Neiman Marcus Inc. ceo and president Karen Katz has worked at the department store since 1985 and began on the sales floor.

“Retail doesn’t only mean jobs. It means careers,” said Shay.

When Shay discussed retailers’ community involvement, he highlighted Wal-Mart Store’s Inc.-owned Sam’s Club’s Hurricane Sandy relief efforts and a Container Store distribution center in Dallas providing resources to its local Child Protective Services.

Turning to innovation, NRF pointed to how Topshop’s digital fashion show opened traditionally restricted affairs to up to 2.1 million viewers from 100 different countries, and to Burberry’s personalization of the shopping experience when videos are triggered by radio frequency identification chips in its clothing.

Kicking off in June, the home of NRF’s This is Retail initiative online will be, where there will be industry news, retail case studies and research. “We will be conducting a lot of very timely original research,” stressed Shay. In addition to placing content on the Web site, NRF will be putting on events with industry leaders, communicating with policy makers to help them understand the industry — Shay has already sent a letter to Capitol Hill about This is Retail — and exploring trends around community building, innovation and job attributes that Millennials covet.

“Retail offers what young adults value in a career, yet too few are buying into the opportunities that exist; we want retail to be the first place young adults shop for a career,” said Shay. “Retail helps push boundaries in innovation; it brings goods to people across the world through charitable actions; it is the foundation of every main street in America, and it offers lifelong careers in areas such as real estate, software development, private investigating and even animal training and photography. ‘This is Retail’ is about telling that story.”