John Davies looks at what a top retailer has to offer its trainees
. Sir Richard Greenbury, chairman of Marks & Spencer plc and holder of honorary degrees from five British universities, is not a direct beneficiary of higher education. He joined the company as a 17-year-old junior management trainee back in 1953, and worked his way up.
Nevertheless, when he addresses the Council for Industry and Higher Education conference this Friday he is expected to stress the importance of university graduates for his company. Last year some 250 graduates took trainee positions in Marks & Spencer, and this year, because of the company's expansion programme, M&S is aiming to recruit 370 graduates for stores and head office.
Where will they come from? A fair number will have degrees in subjects like business studies and marketing. Some may already know what it is like to work for the company having done work experience there. This year M&S is providing almost 200 "business placement opportunities".
But retail work experience is not essential for a graduate trainee. Nikki Gorton of M&S stresses that "we do credit work experience but it isn't a disadvantage if you haven't got it" and trainees are not restricted to vocational degrees. "What we're looking for are strong personal skills", she says.
Vicki Squires, a financial management trainee in M&S's Bolton store, "knew what retail was about" before she started, having worked in shops during her summer vacations from the University of Central Lancashire where she gained an accounting and business degree. She is pleased to be getting experience of three sides of the operation: finance, personnel and commercial (ie the shop floor). "It's very varied, a real eye-opener," she says.
Greenbury's CIHE speech is likely to commend the links that are being established between universities and companies like his.
Manchester Metropolitan University, for instance, introduced a four-year sandwich BA in retail marketing in 1984 when it was still Manchester Polytechnic. "The impetus came from the retail industry, which wanted to increase the perceived status of retailing," explains Steve Baron, principal lecturer in the department of retailing.
"The industry was looking for an HE institution to go out on a limb - to convince people that retail marketing was something worthy of undergraduate study. M&S was one of the companies that were quite keen and we've remained good friends. As long as there's give and take on both sides, we've found (the relationship) is beneficial to both."
It is not just business or retailing degrees that interest the high street conglomerates when it comes to sandwich courses. Plant sciences or food technology have their attractions, too.
Leo Pyle, head of food technology at Reading University, notes that M&S is one of the companies on his department's advisory board, "for us to keep in touch with what they want and for them to keep in touch with what we're trying to do". Students will go to companies such as Northern Foods, St Ivel and Nestle as well as M&S, one of whose managing directors is a Reading graduate.
Training by a top retailer qualifies you for more than a lifetime in the high street or out-of-town superstore. As Vicki Squires says, "A lot of the management things you do every day - meeting deadlines, motivating, communicating and being organised - all these skills I can take anywhere. They don't just apply to M&S."