It’s not hard to see the retail landscape is changing as longtime retailers go out of business or cut back on the number of stores. For workers who have relied on the retail industry for their employment, that instability can create a lot of anxiety.
Grants totaling $161,996 from the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development to the Fox Valley Workforce Development Board are aimed at changing that mindset. They offer displaced retail workers retraining and education so they can find jobs in more stable industries.
FVWDB CEO Anthony Snyder cites Younkers, Sears, Kmart, Shopko, Payless and Toys R Us as examples of retailers that have laid people off or closed altogether.
“There will always be retail jobs in America. We Americans love to shop, but it’s not a growth industry,” Snyder says.
Retail jobs tend to attract three groups of people: high school and college students looking for a part-time job, retirees wanting a little extra money and those of prime working age who are working in the roles as their primary source of income, Snyder says.
“These are people who probably did not get much education after high school,” he says. “So, what you have are people who are very low skilled from a technical or educational standpoint.”
Through the grant, about 24 workers have been retrained in areas including financial services, health care, information technology and manufacturing, which includes welding, press brake operating, truck driving, forklift driving and electromechanical skills.
Donna Janda, a career planner with the Labor Education and Training Center, which contracts with the FVWDB to administer the grant, says this grant is different from other funding because it allows for assistance with living expenses in addition to tuition.
“Most of the students that we have in school probably would not have been able to go on to school if we did not help with those extra things like rent and utilities,” Janda says. “Even if we paid (only) for all their schooling and books, how do you meet your monthly financial needs?”
Displaced workers usually do self-assessments, attend career workshops or work with technical college partners to discover what they’d like to do next. Amber Tharp of Neenah is one of those displaced workers. She was a department store leader for Payless Shoes when the chain filed for bankruptcy.
“I was at a location that was inside a Shopko, so I kind of had a double whammy within two weeks,” says Tharp, who worked for Payless for 21 years, including 13 years as a manager.
Tharp began working at Payless part time while attending the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. “It was one of those things. I couldn’t figure out what I wanted to do, so I just kind of stuck with (Payless),” she says. “And then life kind of happened, and I just kept working there and moved up.”
After she lost her job, Tharp went on some interviews but quickly realized she needed and wanted more skills. She learned about the grant through the unemployment office.
“It was kind of scary at first, because I’m older — I haven’t been to school in forever,” says Tharp, who is enrolled in the office assistant program at Fox Valley Technical College
The grant has allowed Tharp, who is married and caring for three children, to attend school without worry, paying for tuition and some living expenses. While many of Tharp’s colleagues found other jobs in retail, she wanted to pursue a new path.
“I didn’t want to get back into the retail world because it’s not very safe anymore,” she says. “I thought I’d never have an issue with job security in retail until those last few years.”