4 Ways the Footwear Industry Can Recruit and Retain Young Talent

As the shoe industry continues to undergo enormous change, emerging leaders are key for companies looking to disrupt the market. But recruiting and cultivating the next generation can be challenging for veteran executives who have been in the mix for decades.

Here, leaders in the field discuss specifics on what businesses can do to support future footwear trailblazers.

1. Establish Company Culture and Core

Having a clear and concise set of values is the first step for fashion players who want to attract and keep young talent. “Show me a company where the people don’t smile, and the best people won’t stay,” said Keith Martino, head of global consultancy firm CMI.

While quantifying productivity is a no-brainer for organizations, measuring an employee’s passion is often forgotten.

“Senior management needs to develop a set of values that’s going to define all the decisions that are made,” Martino said. “When you solidify your culture, you become a magnet for people who want to be a part of that same thing. This attracts the right kind of people, and then they bond with fellow employees who have the same values. That’s how you keep people for decades.”

Still, the expert cautioned that corporations — and the people who are running them — must authentically represent the culture they speak about, and articulate how the values impact young people’s careers.

“They need to feel like they are working for an organization that has a greater value. It’s not about a popcorn machine or a foosball table in the lobby. They are looking for an internal vibe that will fulfill personal and professional beliefs,” said Neal Newman, president of the nonprofit Two Ten Footwear Foundation. One way companies can connect with young employees is through volunteer programs. “Almost 75 percent of our volunteers are under 35,” Newman said. “It’s about experiencing something greater than career progression.”

2. Mentoring Matters

When asked what companies  can do to foster and champion employees, young footwear executives stress the need for education and insight from proven leaders.

“We have so many people with a wealth of knowledge that isn’t being tapped into,” said Sarah Bloch, the executive director of fashion footwear and accessories at The NPD Group Inc.

Sam Edelman said mentorship is a vital component to the success of his namesake company.

“Seventy nine percent of our company is comprised of people under the age of 35, many of whom joined us directly out of school and have continued to grow their careers with us,” Edelman said. “Young talent is one of our strongest assets. By investing in the development of rising talent, we are investing in the future of our industry.”

At larger companies, there is a natural disconnect between young workers and seasoned leaders, so it’s crucial to create an environment of inclusion and collaboration, according to Matt Priest, president and CEO of the Footwear Distributors and Retailers of America. “Make sure [employees] are empowered. It creates an emotional investment in the operation so people feel needed and they feel loyalty to the vision,” he said.

However, mentoring needs to be a two-way street. The burden to teach is not just on management but on the next generation to help define what they want from a mentor. Linda Adams, a partner at The Trispective Group, a business consultancy, explained: “Companies have an obligation to develop talent. It is much more cost-effective to take the talent that you have and to grow and develop internally, [but] it goes both ways. Talent [itself] needs to seek development.”

While leaders have experience on their side, it’s important to stay open when managing young employees.

“Companies struggle with [the fact] that traditional work hours no longer apply,” Priest said. “Cultivate an environment where people can be successful as long as the flexibility is not a burden to the overall business.”

3. Don’t Box In Employees

Emerging leaders don’t want to pigeonhole themselves into one area of the business — and they’re looking for opportunities that will help them expand on all fronts.

“Footwear companies may be more siloed than they need to be,” said Newman on the importance of creating a diverse work experience. “Young recruits [are] looking for experiences outside their comfort zone. They are looking for something where they can learn from other teams.”

Adams championed the concept of forming small groups — known as tiger teams in HR parlance — to solve company issues.

She added that if young staff members are included in learning across all segments of a company, the business benefits, too.

4. Champion Progression

Discussing personal and professional growth is a starting point for employee allegiance.

“Companies need to facilitate how they are going to develop their own people. [When you’re] given tangible goals, it’s validation [of a company’s commitment],” said Holly Caplan, an author and workplace concerns expert. This goes hand in hand with the values equation — rewarding employees who go beyond their day-to-day responsibilities and perform based on what a firm represents.

“Many organizations promote based on technical skills or length on the job,” Martino said. “But if you promote people who deliver on key values, they will continue to be energized by the culture.”

In turn, talent is likely to bring more to the table when the work environment inspires them.

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