LAS VEGAS - A panel of academics here urged the retail food industry to figure out how to present a better image of itself as a viable career option to college students.
Speaking at a workshop session at the National Grocers Association convention, the panelists - from food programs around the nation - said supermarket retailers could improve their ability to attract college graduates by recruiting more effectively so students get more familiar with their companies; by returning to campuses more consistently so students recognize their commitment; and by hiring younger students as interns so the students can generate positive word-of-mouth among other students when they return to school.
"College students think of the industry based on what they see at store level when they go shopping, and you need to elevate that vision," said Frank Gambino, director of food marketing at Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo. "College students want a job with leadership and responsibility, and you don't do a good enough job making career paths clear, particularly when you're competing with the consumer packaged goods industry, which does a tremendous job laying out potential career paths."
According to Wes Harrison, associate professor at Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, "One obstacle the industry needs to overcome is the knowledge gap that exists between what students know and the career paths available in the food industry, and internships are a good way to get students exposed to that knowledge. Retailers need to speak to classes and work with their local universities to deliver an upbeat message about this industry."
Gambino said smaller companies need to make their presence felt on college campuses. "Don't assume because the big guys are there that they are the ones students want to go with. But you've got to have a strong, consistent presence for them to take you seriously."
Debra Perosio, a lecturer at Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y., noted that although some companies prefer not to hire younger students, they might consider bringing some into internship programs between their freshman and sophomore years "before the CPG companies get to them."
Rich George, professor of food marketing at St. Joseph's University, Philadelphia, agreed. "We've not done the job talking about the upside of the industry. Let's get a wave going and let these young interns go back and tell their story, which is a compelling one," he said.
George also said independent operators need to recruit at the college level to attract students looking to make a difference in the world "because you can show them how they can make a difference much more quickly."
Tom Gilpatrick, executive director of the Food Industry Leadership Center at Portland State University in Oregon, added that independents may have an edge with some students "who may not want to leave the area."