Things Were Supposed To Get Better – Part 3 - Education.

The government has declared its position on funding tertiary education and has indicated that it wants to move to a system more akin to the user-pays model favoured in the United States of America. If this system is the one that eventually emerges it will not only require a social readjustment but it will begin to force students to increasingly focus on return on investment.

A recent article in the Sydney Morning Herald has indicated that we graduate around 12,000 new lawyers every year. The total number of practicing lawyers in Australia is nearly 60,000 and each year around 20 per cent of law graduates will fail to get a job as a lawyer. Those that do are finding downward pressure on graduate salaries. The return on investment of traditional glamour degrees appears to be under pressure at the very time governments are pushing for user pays.

However, the bigger picture return on investment perspective is at the societal level. The government on one hand wants to push more people towards tertiary education. The cynical amongst us would argue this is to delay entry into the labour pool. The tertiary education industry has more than doubled its intake in the last decade alone. Yet from a structural need point of view, we are educating generations of people for either non-existent jobs or over-educating them for the ones that we have a crying need for and/or the ones they will end up in.

The education system does such a good job at indoctrinating tertiary educational ambition and status that many students do not look outside the square at real opportunity. Some years ago I co-authored a book called “Retail Is A University”. It did not and I do not advocate university courses for the recruitment of future retailers.

My firm belief is that the best retailers are fundamentally shaped from working in retail businesses. Experience – embedded the hard way from trial and error – forms a capability of understanding in the best retailers, store managers and shop assistants that is quite honestly impossible to grasp from books and theoretical education alone. That is not to say that additional layers of learning don’t increase capability, but without the former as the foundation we run the risk of breeding people who enter retail businesses today as university graduates not true retailers.

Individual retailers have historically understood this. Myer, David Jones and Woolworths had extensive cadetship programs that provided a clever blend of direct retail experience from working in the business with structured learning and degree courses matched to real retail application. While you were in a job with a career path mapped out for you.

The retail industry needs people with retail understanding. We need smart, entrepreneurial thinkers with great judgement who care about customers and how to make money from them by delivering great retail experiences. It is an opportune time for us to shape education the best way for retail:- re-establishing cadetships on a broader scale; working with the government to find more ways to get teenagers into retail on a part time basis; retaining experienced retailers for longer in a mentoring capacity.

Education is at a crossroads. The retail industry can reshape education to our benefit now.