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

This story first appeared in the May 18, 2010 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

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.


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.



Major fashion brands have been busy on the college circuit, as well.

Liz Claiborne Inc. has been actively recruiting college grads. It just hired three for partnered brands, three for Kate Spade, eight for Juicy Couture and one for corporate. The areas encompass merchandising, sales, planning, production, marketing and e-commerce. The company also offers a 10-week internship program for rising seniors and juniors with opportunities to interact with senior executives, attend meetings, visit showrooms and be exposed to product.

This summer some 75 students will have paid internships at Claiborne on both coasts. Among the schools where the company recruits are Parsons The New School for Design, LIM College, Fashion Institute of Technology, Syracuse University, Boston College, UCLA, Stanford University, New York University, Rutgers University, Rhode Island School of Design, Pace and University of Miami. Some 18 to 20 percent of the interns are eventually hired for full-time jobs.

LF USA, a division of Li & Fung, is pursuing college grads for both internships and full-time positions. “A core part of our mission is to create a world-class internship program for undergrads and grad students,” said Rick Darling, ceo of LF USA. To accomplish that, Darling three years ago hired Karen Coe, executive vice president of human resources, who developed the internship program.

This summer, the firm has hired 50 students from colleges around the country, including Cornell, Colgate, LIM, Boston University, Rhode Island School of Design, School of Visual Arts, Savannah College of Art & Design, Syracuse University, University of Pennsylvania and University of Wisconsin. Interns work at LF in the areas of design, sales, marketing, IT and financial. It also has recruited two M.B.A. students from Penn’s Wharton School for a summer internship and is talking to two others.

Each intern works with a specific manager for 10 weeks, and there are project mentors and midterm reviews. Last year, the company had 35 interns and hired 13 for entry-level positions. Half were in design positions, and the others were in marketing and sales. This year, it has hired 20 graduates for full-time positions, said Darling. The company also recruits students in London and Italy for internships in New York. The internships are five-day-a-week, paid positions.

The students are divided into groups, and several will visit a retailer and find a business opportunity for LF, and then develop a presentation that is given to the presidents of the divisions. Last year, students went to Macy’s, Kohl’s, Sam’s Club and Wal-Mart and worked in cross-functional teams. This year, they’re adding social networking to the list of opportunities to develop a business.

Since LF has a growing accessories business, it is interested in cultivating young talent. To that end, LF sponsors a scholarship at Parsons for a student focused on accessories called the Kathy Van Zeeland Scholarship. The scholarship awards four students $10,000 a year for both their junior and senior years.


Universities contacted said that, for the most part, recruiting increased on their campuses this year, but corporations were coming later in the season for full-time positions, trying to get a better read on whether the economic recovery was sticking.

Erin Armendinger, managing director of the Jay H. Baker Retailing Initiative at the Wharton School, said recruiting vastly improved this year. “From phone calls from companies and recruiters and alums, we are definitely looking at one of the best years we’ve ever had,” she said.

Recruiting was down 10 to 15 percent in 2009, she said.

“The pendulum swung with the recession,” Armendinger said. “People cut training programs and scaled back. Now when the economy has picked up and people have started spending again, they [companies] realize they may have sliced too far.”

She noted that at the M.B.A. level, there are supply-and-demand problems, with a lot of career switchers who want to get into the retail industry, “but the retailers like to see prior experience, so there’s a bit of a mismatch.”

Among some of the companies that have recruited at the M.B.A. level are Coach Inc., Bloomingdale’s, Li & Fung, Gap, L.L. Bean and Gucci.

Penn undergraduates are getting jobs at firms such as Macy’s and Li & Fung, she said. “At the undergraduate level, there’s strong competition for a Macy’s offer,” she said. Nordstrom Inc. recruited at Wharton for the first time for an M.B.A. “Urban Outfitters offered extra spots for Penn [undergraduate] kids,” and Collective Brands Inc. recruited for undergrads.

Simon Collins, dean of the school of fashion at Parsons, said, “In the heyday of 2008, people were falling all over our grads, and we had a 91 percent hiring rate…but this year I’ve been getting a lot of direct calls from companies who’ve seen what we’re up to and want to build up their staffs.” Among the companies seeking to hire are Li & Fung, Calvin Klein, Armani Exchange and Vivienne Tam, in addition to firms working with Parsons’ career services.

Melinda Burke, director of the Lundgren Center for Retailing at the University of Arizona, has also seen a marked improvement in recruiting. “We’ve seen more activity among our students for East Coast retail [and fashion] than in a long time.” She said firms such as Polo Ralph Lauren, Kenneth Cole Productions Inc. and Li & Fung have been hiring for summer internships, and Macy’s, Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Kohl’s and Penney’s have actively recruited. She attributed that to both more visibility because of the Lundgren Center, and its Retailing and Consumer Sciences Program, which offers courses ranging from product development to buying and planning, and consumer behavior.

Burke noted that in the last two weeks alone, she’s been contacted by Target, Penney’s and Kohl’s for summer interns. She’s also noticing that companies such as Apple Inc., Verizon Communications Inc. and AT&T Inc. have been recruiting retail students for their sales leadership and retail training programs.

Asked whether her students tend to stay with retail organizations for the long haul, she said, “There’s a lot of turnover two to three years out. They may find they don’t get promoted and they’re not challenged. [But] they need to have patience.

“But I’m not sure it’s unique to retailing,” she said. “The college grad is on the go, they multitask and they’re impatient and always looking for the next big thing. They have to be challenged and see a clear career path. Retailers need to define what the opportunities are and give benchmarks so that they [employees] can see what they need to do improve their performance to get to the next promotion.”

Wesley E. Thorne 2nd, assistant director for business and employer relations at the University Career Services at Northwestern University, said, “We have a couple of really strong employers who recruit [in retailing]. Popular among our students are the analyst program at Target Corp. and Abercrombie & Fitch’s corporate training program.” He said 10 to 20 students join Target each year, both in full-time positions and summer internships. Sears Holding Corp. also recruits for business analysts, inventory analysts, and logistics management, and L’Oréal hires Northwestern grads.

“We’ve definitely seen an uptick in terms of recruiting,” said Thorne.

Trish Shafer, director of the career services center at Philadelphia University, said the school hosted three big career events during the year. “It’s too soon to tell the outcomes, but anecdotally, students are coming into the office and saying they got a job.” However, she said, there was a dip this academic year and companies came to campus later.

Ross Stores, Penney’s and Wal-Mart were new to campus this year. Shafer said Penney’s hired at least two people and Ross is bringing in several interns. Other companies that recruited either on campus or through a Design Expo (portfolio review day) included Echo Design Group, Tommy Hilfiger, Destination Maternity Corp., Carole Hochman, Limited Brands Inc., Fishman & Tobin, Li & Fung, Abercrombie & Fitch Co. and Eileen Fisher. She noted that one senior was offered an internship at Vera Wang and is also talking to Jones Apparel Group Inc. about a full-time job.

Many of Philadelphia University’s graduating seniors posted their information on LinkedIn and got involved in groups on the Web site, where employers post jobs. Shafer noted that she’s seen a 16 percent increase in students registering to receive academic credit for their summer internship programs.

She said those seeking fashion merchandising and fashion management jobs had the best outcomes. The companies started recruiting in October for May grads. Those companies looking for designers began their search in March, April and May.

Connie Passarella, a career counselor at the Fashion Institute of Technology, said the job outlook “is slowly getting better. It’s turning, and not going to happen overnight.” FIT grads are finding jobs in such areas as production, merchandising, product development, design, advertising, public relations and marketing.

The Class of 2009’s graduates took longer to find positions. “Of those seeking work, 90 percent are employed,” said Andrew Cronan, director, career and internship center. “That was consistent over many years.”

Elizabeth Marcuse, president of LIM College, said, “I’ve seen an increase in the number of people who have secured full-time positions versus last year. It’s more similar to 2008 before the world collapsed.”

LIM graduates are getting jobs in public relations, marketing, merchandising, visual merchandising and buying. Some 55 percent of graduates are fashion merchandising majors. For the first time, companies such as Penney’s, Lacoste, Ross Stores and Levi Strauss & Co. recruited on campus. “Saks has 10 spots in their executive training program, and two of our seniors have been secured,” Marcuse added.

Among the companies where the most LIM students have scored internships this year are Bergdorf Goodman, Victoria’s Secret, Juicy Couture, Gucci, Donna Karan, Henri Bendel, Barneys New York, Anthropologie and Saks Fifth Avenue. While final jobs aren’t available for 2010, companies that hired the most LIM College graduates for full-time positions last year, in order, were Bloomingdale’s, BCBG, Delia’s, Juicy Couture, Macy’s Merchandising Group, Victoria’s Secret, Bergdorf Goodman, Diesel, Henri Bendel and Saks Fifth Avenue.

Marcuse said many of the seniors use social networking tools to find jobs. “They’re posting their own career pages. We encourage them to create their own brands.”

Hiring experts believe it’s imperative retailers and fashion firms recruit young people.

“They’ve got to bring in young talent,” said Hal Reiter, ceo of Herbert Mines Associates. “We’re suffering a material dearth of talent, and unless we recruit and retain these young people, then they’ll be nobody to run these businesses in 15 years.”

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