With storefronts from San Francisco to New York City going dark to comply with stay-at-home orders and footwear brands pivoting to medical equipment to help combat the coronavirus pandemic, it may seem like a terrible time to be looking for a job in fashion.
Behind the scenes, though, the industry is far from a standstill. For one thing, shuttered stores are compelling many retailers to ramp up their digital operations to capture the new demand.
“Most companies have been prioritizing their e-commerce efforts this past year,” says Sue Lamoreaux, managing director of fashion and beauty at executive search firm Solomon Page. “With the reality of social distancing and all these specialty retail stores closing, even more focus will be on online shopping.”
As such, the firm is moving forward “as though it’s business as usual” in recruiting for roles in categories such as supply chain efficiencies, logistics, warehousing, sourcing, performance marketing and e-commerce buying.
The pressing need for more hands on deck in e-commerce has been most apparent in recent weeks with the announcement that Amazon is seeking to add 100,000 workers to keep up with the surge in demand for household essentials. Across retail, the spike in hiring extends also to e-commerce managers, according to data provided by the job marketplace ZipRecruiter.
The company’s average daily job count for e-commerce roles more than tripled from 3,856 the week of February 24 (already a year-to-date high) to 12,453 the week of March 16. During the same period, the number of warehousing jobs rose from 118,474 to 135,244.
“The COVID-19 crisis is affecting fashion and retail jobs differently, based on the degree to which they require face-to-face interaction,” said Julia Pollak, ZipRecruiter’s labor economist. “Jobs for fashion models and retail store associates have fallen steeply over the past four weeks, while jobs for fashion designers have risen and those for e-commerce managers have skyrocketed.”
While supply chain disruptions — including transportation delays, budget freezes and lockdowns in production hubs like China and Bangladesh — may interfere with the usual flow of the fashion calendar, brands need designers to make products consumers will want to buy, even in times of uncertainty.
“If companies needed a head of footwear design or they needed footwear designers going into this, they’re still going to need them coming out,” said Karen Harvey, CEO and founder of Karen Harvey Consulting Group, an executive search and advisory firm. Those willing to work on a freelance basis — a practice more common in footwear design than apparel — may be at an advantage while companies are navigating this uncharted territory.
Even more than this, she said, “We will move into a period where the best leaders will start to innovate and shift gears and drive the way that they communicate and work with their consumers because this period calls for nothing short of innovation. And it’s not just product innovation, but it’s how you think and it’s also being able to really motivate your teams. You want to keep your best people engaged [and] your customers engaged.”
In other words: Going back to business as usual may not be what companies are aiming for.
While just months ago, companies were contending with a tight labor market, the economy has taken a dramatic nosedive in March as containment efforts have become more widespread. Initial jobless claims are expected to spike to a record high of between 2 and 3.4 million this week, according to estimates by Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs. Last week’s total of 281,000 new claims was already the highest level the country has seen since Sept. 2, 2017.
In a recessionary climate, many companies will be analyzing their spending and deciding what’s essential, said Harvey, and they will likely postpone hiring for any roles that they consider “nice-to-haves.” Retailers that are heavily reliant on brick-and-mortar stores are also in a more precarious position than their diversified peers, so their hiring decisions may be contingent on the outcome of negotiations with landlords and suppliers in the coming weeks.
That’s not to say job seekers are entirely out of luck if they’ve been in talks with a company that’s in this position, said Lamoreaux. But it may mean they’ll have to sit tight before they can expect a follow-up.
“No one has a crystal ball and silence doesn’t mean that they’ve forgotten you or eliminated you,” she explained. “They just may need to have a better understanding of the magnitude, the timing and the impact this will all have on their business.”
With offices closed and teams working remotely, one area that’s already been impacted is the in-person interview. While most HR leads and hiring managers were already using video-conferencing services like Zoom and WebEx for initial interviews with candidates, said Lamoreaux, companies typically still want to meet potential hires in-person before extending an offer.
Will that remain the case if teams are still at home in several weeks? It’s too early to say.
In the meantime, Harvey advised, job seekers should familiarize themselves with (and, where applicable, buy subscriptions to) these services to avoid any hiccups during an interview. For creatives, she said, “this is a wonderful time to really work on their portfolio and hone in on presenting their best work. One of the things we find very often is people just don’t honor their work enough with the strongest portfolios and they seem to throw them together at the last minute.”
This turbulent time will be a test not just for brands and retailers — some of whom, it already appears, may not emerge on the other side — but also for candidates to demonstrate their adaptability and nimbleness under pressure.
“Companies may be looking at how they can do more with less, so don’t go into an interview discussing what you didn’t like about your last job,” said Lamoreaux. “This is a time for optimism, unity, support, patience. Everyone is affected right now, but your ability to be resilient and adaptable could be the tipping factor of a company selecting you over another candidate.”