Australia’s got talent

applicantsAs if conditions for retailers weren’t already challenging enough, by way of seismic changes to work visas, the federal government has recently dumped a mountain-sized rock on the retail sector’s shop floor and retailers no longer have easy access to international talent.

However, as retailers lament being cut off from global talent, perhaps the retail sector needs to take stock of how we got here. Could it be argued that the industry failed to bring the right equipment to this notorious, increasingly hazardous zone?

This is a tenuous stretch of a questionable metaphor at best, but is it worth considering that this situation might have something to do with the industry’s disinclination to invest in its own growth?

You fed them the fish

For years, recruiters were directed by retail clients to source international talent first, particularly for buying and merchandise roles. The heady mix of worldly professionalism and expertise with leading technologies, plus our permissive work visas, made it an entirely reasonable directive and worth the expense.

The ironic double whammy to this hiring practice?

  1. Internationals struggled in Australia – many left. They struggled with our underinvestment in systems and were frustrated by the glacial pace of the market and the inability to deliver the results they normally could.
  2. The lack of comparable technology (plus the local retailers’ disinterest in hiring homegrown talent) pushed a lot of locals overseas.

Talent was too easily plucked off the international talent tree. Few retailers leveraged their overseas hires for the learning and development of their local teams. Few invested in systems more advanced than an Excel spreadsheet. Fewer still thought to offer graduate programs.

Agreed, the switch from the four-year work visa with a built-in pathway to permanent residency (the 457), to the two-year visa and its shrinking list of eligible occupations, with no simple pathway to residence (the STSOL), is not helpful. But, neither is it the full story.

Look in your own backyard

To put it bluntly, we need to stop giving oxygen to the argument that there is no good retail talent in Australia. Not only is it patently untrue, it’s not solutions-focused.

There is great talent in Australia that has been overlooked for years. Yes, it is a competitive market, but there is talent here. Retailers would do well to build a more competitive EVP that will attract and retain local talent.

And while we’re speaking of retaining talent, without doubt you have great people within your own ranks. You might be a little late to the learning and development party, but there’s never been a better time to train your future leaders.

The Chinese symbol for crisis

They say ‘crisis’ in Chinese is the combined symbols for ‘danger’ and ‘opportunity’.

Indeed, seeking an opportunity is a sterling idea in any language. And there is opportunity here.

Retailers have, by no means, cornered the market on resilient, confident, commercially-minded individuals with sharp trading instincts. The professional world is full of people who can think like a customer and execute like a retailer.

There is a lot to be said for looking outside the retail function for some fresh thinking. There is unprecedented movement between retail, finance, tech, media and more. You may not even need to go to another industry to find this talent.

For example, you may have someone in your finance department who feels stifled in their current role and needs new direction. Could they be well-suited for a merchandise role?

Let’s agree to agree

Let’s go back to agreeing that the visa changes are far from ideal. Let’s also agree that in all recorded history, complaining or stating the obvious has never moved a mountain.

It’s true that traditional retailers historically resist changes. Disruptions come anyway. Successful retailers adapted. Whilst we’re all in agreement, there should be little resistance to exploring the talent opportunities that are right under our noses.

Adjustments are needed in the way retailers are locating, attracting, and keeping talent. Then perhaps we can agree on a few mandates to manage the inevitable disruptions in retail.

Aside from developing your current teams and creating a culture based on values and purpose (which should be a given), big retailers need to offer graduate program and everyone needs to start investing in their systems to get us up to speed with the rest of the world.

If we want a career in retail in Australia to be seen as a viable, rewarding and progressive career path for Australians, it is the retailers of Australia who need to start treating it as such. Are you up for the challenge?

Richard Wynn is managing partner at FutureYou Executive Recruitment: – 0448 416 172.


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