The value of education

Training teaches staffers how to handle the tasks of today, but education prepares them for the challenges of tomorrow.

By Dr. John L. Stanton

At almost every convention or conference I attend, one of the speakers will quote Bob Dylan on how “the times they are a-changin.” Consumers are changing, the economy is changing, channels of distribution are changing and so are the ways we examine and analyze the changes. While everybody talks about change, it is also important to prepare for the change by keeping up. We must also learn how to deal with change and find opportunities in change. That, ladies and gentlemen, is what education is all about.

Sadly, I find that many food retailers underestimate the value of having an educated staff. I am also aware that retailers place a high value on having a very well-trained staff. But training is about doing the same tasks better and education is about being better prepared to handle new tasks demanded by change.

What I find ironic is that when you look at the plans of food retailers, you see money set aside for replacing aging shelves, outdated refrigerators and even the floors. But virtually nothing is set aside to replace the old ideas of how to run a food retail store. Virtually nothing is set aside to provide for the new ideas that will be needed to compete in the future.  It is new ideas and new ways to run the business. One top executive at a legacy store that slowly began losing business to the new guys told me, “Our problem is not making the shelves look good, it is how we look at the shelves.”

I also recognize that one argument given for not investing in education is that employees leave the company after they complete the program. One senior executive at Wawa, a convenience store chain, has a different view. He says people will leave whether they are educated or not, so he would rather have educated people working for him and leave than have uneducated people that stay in the company. What he found was that by having one of the best education programs in the country, he had one of the lowest employee turnover rates in the industry.

This does not surprise me. A survey by our Food Executive program in the Department of Food Marketing discovered that of the five companies that sent the most students to our program, none of the graduates had left their companies.

You may notice that industries such as nutritionists, nurses, engineers, teachers, insurance brokers and even lawyers—all of which are considered professional fields—require continuing education. And that is what may be at the core of our problem. We do not think of ourselves as professionals. We suffer from low industry self-esteem. Yet the food retail industry is one of the most noble professions I know. The industry brings consumers the safest, freshest, most varied, nutritious and least-costly food in the world. While not perfect, we are the standard for the world to follow and we need to stay there.

The food retail industry needs to take a fresh look at itself and say we need to take a more professional approach to our employees’ education. We need to establish minimal standards for what our people should know and it should be updated regularly. We should have certification that our employees meet these standards and demand continuing education. I believe that the University Food Industry Coalition of the National Grocers Association can help by creating a program for real food marketing education that has evaluations of the students, standards for the faculty and an approved curriculum by the industry. This will lead to a professional certification that puts our management on the same level as any professional organization.

There was a time when just good hard work and lots of hours could make for a successful food retailer. However, food retailing today is as much big business as GM or IBM. We need executives who are prepared for a future of high tech, massive data, new channels of communication, diversity of consumers, and new competition. Playing in this arena means a constant upgrading of knowledge. Education may be the ingredient that makes us more competitive and more profitable.

Dr. John L. Stanton is professor and chairman of the Department of Food Marketing at Saint Joseph’s University, based in Philadelphia.

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