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When will Australia embrace the opportunities of the future?

A long time ago I owned and operated a retail shop. My greatest fear was not having what the customer wanted, because you can't sell something if you don't have it in stock. In those days (at the risk of disclosing my age), sophisticated computerised inventory systems were beyond the financial reach of a small business. Today they are affordable, but how many do we see implemented?

Indeed, these days when internationally sophisticated supply tracking solutions like RFID are increasingly the norm in retail chains, here in Australia we still have the experience of hearing "well the computer says our Chatswood store has one or two, but I’d better call and check, as the computer is often wrong". Why? Because it's still basically a manual system.

Similar situations occur in the increasingly important area of merchandise buying and planning. How many times have you gone into a store looking for a certain product, to find that they are sold out? Often there are plenty of a similar items in stock, but it's the size, type or colour that no one wants.

Innovative ways exist to deal with these challenges - but Australia has been a slow adopter. Is the time right for this to change? I hope so, and importantly, through our consultation on the development of the new Retail Services Training Package - and in particular the New Retail Series pilots - we are seeing a great collegiate spirit amongst those responsible for our retail workforce, which in the end, no amount of sophisticated technology solutions can replace.

A few weeks back I had the pleasure of being on the judging panel for the National Retail Association’s (NRA) Young Retailer of the Year award for the second time and the leadership qualities, communication skills and innovative projects presented by the finalists who are all under 25 years of age is mind blowing. The winner’s prize is to join the 2016 Westfield World Retail Study Tour. This means that, as a young retailer, they get the opportunity to see the best and most innovative retail solutions being employed internationally and to engage with the Australian retail elite who travel on these tours. That’s exposure to Australia's real competition - the world - rather than the store in the next suburb and whatever it is doing. We need to stop looking in the rear vision mirror and protecting only what we currently have and instead embrace change and opportunities.

Recently I visited the Cotton On Group’s Head Office in Geelong. There are some 700 people working there in some incredibly exciting roles, focussing on projects both here in Australia and abroad. Many of these jobs did not even exist five or so years ago. The breadth of roles and career opportunities are head spinning and so many of these roles start with that first customer service role which, in my view, sets you up for life.

The emotional intelligence and skills you need to do these types of roles well is significant. A person requires skills in communication, conflict resolution, working in teams and as you progress, leadership. This is not only true of retail, it's the same in tourism and hospitality, personal services, sport and recreation and of course community services and health.

So why as a country, are we not encouraging our young people to grab these roles and take the opportunity to develop these incredibly important skills? Why do we not recognise that strategically developing this services based workforce has enormous flow on benefits throughout the economy? I say strategically developing the workforce as I’m not talking about churning out people with qualifications, but no consideration of quality. It has to be workforce development that is led by the relevant industry, to industry standards and with clear goals and accountability.

Imagine the impact if this was the baseline from which young Australians started. Wouldn't this be incredibly powerful? If we are looking at embracing the enormous opportunities brought on by disruption and having Asia knocking on our door, let’s make strategic workforce development of our services sector one of the foundations.

Let’s stop seeing these front facing service roles as the job you get when you’re waiting for something better. Let’s ensure that employers see these roles as ones requiring developed emotional intelligence skills and let’s applaud the opportunities and careers such skills can lead to.

Our services sectors along with the community services and health sectors will be responsible for the creation of one in every two jobs in the next five years. So let's make sure that it is our youth that benefits, as it will only add to the productivity and growth of our entire nation.
Yasmin King