Beyond stocking shelves: How grocers are opening up career paths for workers

This is the second story in a three-part series examining the relationship between grocers and their workers.

Growing up, Ellen Story never considered making a career in the grocery industry.

But then she took a job as a cashier at the Stew Leonard’s store in Norwalk, Connecticut, in the mid 1980s. It was only supposed to be a brief, part-time gig — a way for her to pay for her car insurance. She worked at the store throughout high school, then earned a scholarship from the grocery company that helped send her to the College of William & Mary.

Story would work at the store during summers and over holiday breaks, and she enjoyed the flexibility the company afforded her. When she graduated from William & Mary in 1992, Stew Leonard’s offered her a full-time position in its human resources department.

Nearly four decades later, Story is now vice president of human resources for the company.

A lot has changed in the industry, and Stew Leonard’s has opened several locations since Story began working for the company. Still, she said her lack of awareness of career opportunities in grocery as a teenager remains a familiar narrative.

“I’m sure if you asked 100 of [Stew Leonard’s full-time employees], probably 95 of them would say a similar thing to what happened to me,” she said. “I had no idea, and so I think it’s incumbent upon us as an industry to shout about these opportunities.”

Convincing workers to see grocery jobs as more than just stocking shelves or ringing up products part-time is a challenge the industry has faced for years. And it may become a bigger problem as companies face increasing pressure to develop the sort of talent that will help them innovate and compete in a rapidly evolving industry.

Grocers aren’t sitting back and waiting for the problem to fix itself. They’re developing new training resources, internships and internal policies to help them identify promising candidates for store leadership positions and corporate roles. Faced with an ongoing shortage of people interested in filling store and warehouse jobs, they’ve also done more to promote career pathways within their organizations.

On its website and in marketing materials at store checkout counters, Stew Leonard’s is showcasing workers who have risen “up the ladder” — like Nevin Philip, who started as a store cashier and advanced through several positions to become vice president of the company’s paramusNew Jersey, location.

To entice management candidates, Stew Leonard’s offers a special management training program for college graduates. The company doesn’t require that managers have a college degree, but this particular program, which includes classroom sessions and working alongside a development manager inside stores, offers a “fast track” into those leadership roles, said Story.

Stew Leonard’s offers fast-track management courses for college graduates and a “bootcamp” for current managers.

Dave Kotinsky via Getty Images

Stew Leonard’s also runs a yearly “leadership boot camp” for current management-level workers who show promise of some day becoming store directors or senior executives. Participants have monthly sessions covering various aspects of the business, like marketing and finance. They also work together on a project that company leaders assign to them, like evaluating a loyalty program or remaking the coffee department, Story said.

This year’s leadership boot camp fielded 38 applicants, of which six were selected.

“If you show these folks that you are committed to them, that you’re investing in them and there’s a future for them, they stay a long time. We have a lot of examples of that,” said Story.

The Giant Company is also trying to give its associates a leg up and ensure it has the right workforce skills for the years ahead. Last year, the Pennsylvania-based grocer started Giant University, an internal education program that teaches everything from produce merchandising to how to read a profit and loss statement. Classes are available in-person at Giant’s Carlisle, Pennsylvania, headquarters and at the company’s e-commerce fulfillment center in Philadelphia. Salaried, full-time workers can also take classes remotely.

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