Why Alberta workers are abandoning retail

The Retail Council of Canada recently release a labour market study on Alberta’s retail sector, and there is some interesting information in there.

Earlier this years, the Retail Council of Canada released a labour market study regarding the retail sector in Alberta. Much of it focused on labour within the sector, so I thought I’d share here what I found.

Using funding provided by the Canadian and Alberta governments, the Retail Council of Canada hired Malatest & Associates to conduct a labour market information study of the province”s retail sector.

The executive summary began by claiming that this sector faces “significant and extensive challenges” in recruiting and retaining sufficient workers. It goes on to saw that as the provincial economy continues to improve and its retail sector continues to grow, these challenges will increase.

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The report claimed that the sector has seen a net loss of workers around the 3% mark over the last 10 years. As well, employers reported that during the same period, they’ve seen a long-term vacancy rate of “frontline” workers of over 10%.

To reverse these losses, according to the report, the sector must fill over 7,300 existing vacancies and find nearly 29,000 more workers to accommodate growth over the next 5 years. On top of that, the sector to needs to find another 26,000 to replace those who may retire or find work in other sectors over the next 5 years.

That’s more than 60,000 workers the sector needs to hire over the next 5 years.

So what’s causing this shortfall? Well, it comes down to four keys issues:

  • The education system is not preparing young retail workers
  • Very little comprehensive training or professional development
  • Several barriers to recruitment and retention
  • Public perception is that retail jobs are short-term

The employers who answered the surveys claimed that high school graduates who work in their businesses are not prepared for retail. For example, they said that they lack basic numeracy skills: they don’t know how to county money.

They also claim these young workers lack timekeeping, decision-making , and interpersonal skills, as well as are unfamiliar with basic software, such as Microsoft Excel.

Interestingly, however, they didn’t seem to blame the workers themselves for these deficiencies.

Other participants identified the development of basic retail sector skills as an ongoing gap in Alberta, particularly because many of the colleges or universities in the province were seen to focus primarily on preparing students to work in the oil and gas industry.

As far as training and professional development goes, About 88% of the respondents reported that they provided either internal or external training opportunities (or both). However, front-line workers were more likely to receive internal training, while managers were more likely to receive external training:

Internal only41.0%27.2%
External only3.6%4.9%
Both internal & external43.4%55.6%

The vast majority of respondents (65.1%) also claimed that they had mentorship programmes to retain workers and help theit career progression, only 15.7% described them as formal mentorship programs.

Despite two-thirds of frontline workers (67.6%) had participated in training and professional development opportunities, employers were reluctant to provide training, claiming 6 primary reasons.

The employers thought the costs of paying workers to attend training was one barrier, and related to that, they were worried about investing in a worker’s training just to have them leave later on, or that they wouldn’t even be able to apply the training in their current role.

Employers were also maintaining lean staffing levels, so they had trouble maintaining coverage when workers are in training. Some of the employers had created internal training programmes that workers were expected to complete on their own time, outside of work hours and which they ween’ compensated for.

They also felt that travel to training was too expensive and that their workers weren’t that motivated to take the training anyhow.

Despite the reluctance, however, every employer who participated in the survey agree that training was key to increasing and maintaining worker retention.

Speaking of worker recruitment and retention, there were several barriers to recruiting and then retaining frontline workers. Here’s a list of them. Remember, this is based on the employer’s pereception, so the numbers possible could vary if workers themselves had been asked the same question.

Starting salary or wages56.0%
Shift schedule requirements46.3%
Career earning potential44.6%
Career progression or advancement opportunities41.7%
Salary increase for increased responsibilities or experience41.2%
Schedule flexibility39.3%
Hours of operation35.4%
Access to PD opportunities26.2%
Availability of benefits25.0%
Aibility to socialize with co-workers22.0%
Location of the work19.5%
General workplace atmosphere14.1%

Easily the singlemost reason for difficulty in recruiting and retaining frontline workers was salary and wages, being the only reason that saw a majority of respondents indicate this.

Shift schedule requirements, career earning potential, advancement opportunities, and pay raises for increased responsibilities or experience weren’t that far behind, with all coming in at over 40%.

Speaking of advancement opportunities, the report discovered a few interesting things.

For example, front-line workers who were promoted ended up moving into entry-level supervisory positions (like a floor supervisor,, for example). In fact, 75–95% of such roles were filled this way. However, only 10–25% of upper or senior management came from frontline workers.

I mean, why bother staying staying with a company if the highest you’ll ever make it is the person working just one level above you?

Not only that, but it’s arguable worse for marginalized populations, with these employers being more likely to see marginalized workers overepresented in frontline positions, compard to manger positions.

Young workers82.7%25.5%
New Canadians70.7%41.8%
Indigenous workers58.7%30.9%
Disabled workers50.7%52.7%

As far as perceptions. of retail not being a long-term career option, survey respondents blamed a societal stigma surrounding the sector of it being a stepping stone to another career. They highlighted several components to that public perception.

According to these employers, the general public think that the pay in the sector sucks (they used the word “unfavourable”), that workers are stuck in the store all day, that work–life balance is poor, that there are few advancement opportunities, and entry-level management positions don’t pay well.

They also blamed the COVID-19 pandemic for an acceleration of this perception.

The employers claimed that workers don’t want to be in client-facing settings anymore and that they would rather work remotely/ They also said that some workers left the sector because pandemic-fuelled labour shortages in other sectors resulted in better pay elsewhere. Finally, some workers had to live their jobs because they chose to not get vaccinated against COVID-19.

The primary source of data for this report was a survey of 87 employers, which accounted for 15.6% of the province’s full-time retail workers and 28.3% of its part-time workers. The report extrapolated that the data sample represents about 1 in 5 retail workers overall in Alberta.

Here’s how they broke down by retail sector:

Clothing & clothing accessories stores23.0%
Food & beverage stores17.2%
Miscellaneous store retailers13.8%
Sporting goods, hobby, book, music stores11.5%
Health & personal care stores8.0%
Building material & garden equipment & supplies dealers5.7%
Furniture & home furnishings stores4.6%
General merchandise stores4.6%
Business services4.6%
Electronics & appliance stores3.4%
Non-store retailers (e.g. online retailers)2.3%
Quick serve (e.g. fast food)1.1%

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By Kim Siever

Kim Siever is an independent queer journalist based in Lethbridge, Alberta. He writes daily news articles, focusing on politics and labour.

3 replies on “Why Alberta workers are abandoning retail”

I am sure the UCP will try to use this type of data to expand the Temporary Foreign Worker program to fill more retail positions if they can. There is little incentive for employers to improve working conditions and compensation packages to attract local workers if the retail industry can turn to governments for this type of relief. I would like to see much improved working conditions and compensation to attract local workers, and to better the conditions and compensation for the TFWs who do arrive and are needed to help Alberta employers.

I work in an industry where employers post employment ads in trade publications and leave them up all year in order to be able to claim they need to hire TFWs because they are not able to attract Canadians for the jobs. Covid helped encourage some of these employers to hire more locals when some TFWs were not able to get to Canada, but the trend does not seem to be continuing.

I used to work for a company that helped bring TFWs into Canada, and the clients so often made the claim that no one was applying for their vacant positions.

Someone needs to educate the employers who filled in this survey.

“They also claim these young workers lack timekeeping, decision-making , and interpersonal skills, as well as are unfamiliar with basic software, such as Microsoft Excel.”

It’s not the responsibility our schools to teach the above. Timekeeping, decision-making and interpersonal skills are things you learn from experience. Society in general and family also play a role.

There may be a place for schools to teach software skills just like there is for learning how to cook or repair a car, but the focus for most always has been and should continue to be on academic subjects like math, language, critical thinking and science. Your first twelve or thirteen years of schooling are meant to build a foundation for everything else.

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