Academic journal article National Institute Economic Review

Two Nations of Shopkeepers: Training for Retailing in France and Britain

Academic journal article National Institute Economic Review

Two Nations of Shopkeepers: Training for Retailing in France and Britain

Article excerpt

TWO NATIONS OF SHOPKEEPERS: TRAINING FOR RETAILING IN FRANCE AND BRITAIN

1. Wider issues

A comparison between Britain and France of training for the retail trades brings to the fore some very basic questions, the answers to which are probably relevant to many other trades and to wider issues of training policy. First, how much training is really essential for most employees in this kind of industry for their immediate employment--which may require much common sense, but few complex technical skills? Secondly, is more than a bare minimum of training perhaps jutified on broader grounds; for example, because training to higher vocational standards leads to higher general educational standards, with direct benefits to the individuals concerned, and benefits for the economy in improving flexibility between trades? Thirdly, changes in technology have--as is familiar--reduced skill requirements in some occupations and increased them in others; in retailing we have to ask what are the effects on training requirements not only of the recent electronic advances affecting the work of the cashier, but also of the continuing trend towards self-service and the additional skill-flexibility required from a reduced labour force.

As we shall see, Britain and France rely on very different schemes of training for retailing; both countries have encountered serious problems in their training, and in both countries coinsiderable changes are in progress or being planned. Our task here is to evaluate the gaps between the two countries to see what may be learnt from French experience that may be of wider benefit.

In both countries the retailing industry is a substantial employer, accounting for 1.4 million full-time employees and self-employed in Britain and 1.3 million in France; in addition there are 0.9 million part-time employees in Britain, mostly women often working for very few hours a week, and 0.3 million in France. Altogether nearly a tenth of the total (full-time equivalent) workforce in each country is engaged in retailing. The industry accounts for a yet higher proportion of all young female entrants to the workforce--about one in five of all employed women under 20 in both countries--and a proper resolution of training issues is of particular importance to them.

A particularly serious difficulty in organising retail training is that labour turnover in these occupations is extremely high. The rate of turnover varies according to age and location: perhaps half of employees of all ages leave within a year; at younger ages labour turnover is undoubtedly very much greater. In large cities with plentiful employment opportunities, labour turnover rates of '100 or 200 per cent a year' were frequently mentioned; but this is no more than an approximate manner of speaking. Employers who are much affected by this problem speak in terms of 'survival rates' within the first year: for example, half of all young new employees have left within three months of recruitment, and 80 per cent within six months (the position in large stores in London's West End). With such very high rates of labour turnover, employers obviuosly do not find it worth investing very much in the way of training; for part-time employees the difficulties of organising trainig are greater, even if labour turnover for certain categories (for example, Saturday-only employees) is often lower than for full-time employees.

Pressures to reduce costs of distribution have increased--not simply as a result of increased competition amongst the many types of local retailers (supermarkets, chain stores, small independent shopkeepers)--but as a result of fundamental underlying economic forces: retailing has become expensive in relation to the costs incurred at the manufacturing stages. This is because retailers sell individual items to individual consumers, whereas manufacturing costs continue to fall as mass production and automation continue to advance. …

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