A new retail training program called Rise UP guarantees participants who complete the session an interview with partner retailers, such as Target and Under Armour. (Kenneth K. Lam / Baltimore Sun)
David Townes has worked as a cashier for Safeway and Home Depot in the past but has been out of a job, other than temporary positions, since 2012, when he stopped working after a surgery.
Hoping to get back into retail, the East Baltimore resident signed up for a pilot retail certification program being offered by Goodwill Industries of the Chesapeake in partnership with National Retail Federation.
"I'm a people person," said Townes, 59. "I enjoy working with the public and making people happy. The opportunity to earn a certificate in retail, I thought would help in my job search."
Stores have been closing their doors at a rapid clip this year, but in this job training class, the students still see retail as their future. After all, despite tremendous shifts in retail as more consumers shop online, forcing chains to trim store counts and malls to reinvent themselves, retail jobs have been growing. The sector added 1.5 million jobs since 2010, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Students whocomplete the course and pass an exam receive retail certifications, and they're also guaranteed interviews with retailers including Under Armour, Staples, BJ's Wholesale Club, Crate & Barrel, Macy's and Target.
The National Retail Federation is testing the retail-focused jobs initiative it calls Rise Up in Baltimore. The Washington-based retail trade group developed the curriculum, incorporating and overhauling two existing credentialing programs and engaged nonprofits such as Goodwill to teach the classes.
It's also offering classes in Chicago, Dallas and Los Angeles, but picked Baltimore to test a model that signs up retailers as partners to interview — and hopefully hire — Rise Up graduates.
Thus far in the Baltimore pilot program, six city organizations have trained between 200 to 250 people. Beside Goodwill, they include Humanim, Living Classrooms, Marian House, Homeless VA and the Mayor's Office of Employment Development.
The retail federation sees the program as a way to help more people get into retail and move up in careers at a tumultuous time for the industry.
Despite the closings, retailers still are hiring and often struggling to fill vacancies, the group says.
About 500,000 positions are open in the United States, said Ellen Davis, executive director of the NRF Foundation and head of RISE Up.
"Many retailers, especially at this time of year, find it challenging to identify and retain entry-level talent," Davis said. "People who go through the retail industry fundamentals training are better candidates than the typical applicant for an entry-level job."
In Baltimore, the six participating retailers have between 400 to 500 open positions at Baltimore-area stores, distribution centers and call centers. They will interview credentialed candidates Thursday at the UA House at Fayette, an East Baltimore community center run by Living Classrooms and partly funded by Under Armour.
Davis said she expects more jobs at the hiring event than candidates to fill them.
"Retailers are hungry for entry-level talent in Baltimore," she said. "It is a city that has experienced its share of political and workforce challenges as many cities have."
Macy's hopes to make about 100 offers for seasonal and permanent jobs in its Baltimore area department stores at the event, said Anne Voller, group vice president of talent acquisition at Macy's.
"We offer, whether in our stores or in the warehouses or in the call centers, a lot of entry-level, hourly positions, and there are a lot of markets in the country where there just aren't enough people to fill those jobs," saidVoller, citing declining unemployment. "You can see 'now hiring' signs everywhere, at fast food, grocery stores, the malls. Everybody is competing for the talent."
She said she expects the certification program to expand the supply of qualified candidates, bringing in potential workers who are committed to the industry.
"It helps them to understand the industry and what's expected of them in the workplace," Voller said.
Under Armour sees Rise Up as offering a missing component in retail training — the collaboration among nonprofits that connect with potential retail candidates and a range of retailers, said Stacey Ullrich, head of global philanthropy at Under Armour and executive director of the Under Armour Foundation.
"Collaborating across all brands to make the retail experience in general good for consumers is really important," Ullrich said. The company will be seeking individuals who can communicate "that spirit of sport and the power of sport and the grit and excitement about the product and the innovation that we're providing everyday athletes."
The retail group's NRF Foundation covered the cost of training 250 people in the Baltimore area, who have undergone 20 to 40 hours of classroom training. The foundation plans to formally assess the program after the hiring fair and will consider expanding it in Baltimore and elsewhere.
At Goodwill on East Redwood Street, Kevin Armstrong, a job readiness instructor, has taught a four-week Rise Up course three mornings a week. On a recent morning, Armstrong reviewed material in preparation for the credentials test, including topics such as how responsibilities differ for employees who work in department stores versus grocery stores. The course covered product knowledge, branding, customer service and job application skills, among other areas, he said.
"Some are looking for their very first job," Armstrong said of his students. "Some have had retail experience, and some are looking to switch careers."
Labrea Cherry, who graduated in June from Parkville High School, said she enrolled in the course to improve her chance of being noticed by stores' hiring managers.