If recruitment is such a crisis for retailers, Simon Howard wonders why it isn’t more of a priority for top managers

In so many battles, in so many wars, there seems to be such a disconnection between how the generals view the world from their remote headquarters and what actually happens on the frontline.

One hundred and fifty years ago, leadership incompetence in the Crimea cost many thousands more lives through the starvation of troops, than did the one notorious decision that caused the Charge of the Light Brigade. And it took a German general in the First World War to recognise this very British behaviour and coin the phrase ‘lions led by donkeys’.

Just two weeks ago The Grocer ran a feature revealing “the extent of the recruitment crisis dogging the shop floor” (‘The big staff checkout’, September 20, p42). Highlighting an average turnover rate of 26% and costs of £727 for filling every vacancy, front line store recruiters painted a bleak picture for the industry.

But if they’re finding it tough now, that’s nothing to what the future holds.

For the past three years the recruitment market has been in steep overall decline - employer demand for staff has been falling, with both temporary and permanent vacancy numbers down month after month. But that is now changing; for the past three months vacancies have been on the increase and the market for staff is beginning to warm up.

So you have to ask yourself the question: “If retailers were finding it tough when the market was quiet, how will they fair against stiffer competition?”

The thing is, I can’t help thinking that there’s another war for talent just around the corner, and I don’t believe the generals back at HQ are quite in touch with what’s happening - and about to happen - on the frontline.

Unlike the first war for talent (which was a pretty exclusive affair for senior management, dot.com, IT and City people) this next one will be about front line staff across nearly all industries. The reasoning for this is pretty simple: there is every indication that the economy is about to pick up - ie grow at a faster rate - but it will be doing so from a position of near-full employment. And that has never happened before. Previously there has been plenty of slack in the labour market, but as The Grocer survey showed, there is already precious little slack at store level - and you don’t need to me to tell you that out there in local markets, there are plenty of other employers from many other industries who will be eyeing up your employees as their business improves.

My worry for the retail industry is that, while the front line managers seem to have a grasp of the recruitment challenge, there seems little evidence that senior management - in particular HR - has cottoned on to what this crisis means. So perhaps it’s time to truly re-evaluate how people are recruited.

The only company that came out moderately well in The Grocer recruitment survey was Asda - which of all the retailers has a sound record for investment and innovation in recruitment, so clearly there’s something to be said for taking it seriously and investing up front.

More controversially I would ask the question whether HR (aka personnel) are really the best people to be responsible for recruitment.

After 24 years in the recruitment trade, I have to reflect that there is only a tiny minority of HR people who are actually interested in recruitment and see it as anything other than a chore.

Perhaps a good indication of this is that at the annual HR conference in Harrogate later this month, only one of 44 conference sessions actually touches on recruitment (and is it just coincidence that Asda’s people director David Smith is its speaker?).

There is no one answer, no silver bullet for the recruitment problems the retail industry faces. There is evidence that some retailers have responded by outsourcing an amount of their recruitment while others have become more reliant on (more expensive) agency staff. But none of this smacks of a strategy led from the top - and there won’t be many store recruiters who would disagree with that.

n Simon Howard is a founder of Work Communications and writes the Jobfile column for the Sunday Times.