It’s springtime in Texas. The weather is warming up and the air is thick and humid as students count down the days until summer break, but inside one Houston-area high school, a group of students isn’t exactly tied to their desks.
They aren’t in the gym, in home economics class or studying math. These students are inside Scarborough High School’s mock Wal-Mart store, located just down the hall from traditional classrooms. The store is a lab of sorts, set up and paid for by the retail giant, complete with a cash register, shelves of inventory, and those familiar “rollback” pricing signs on each display.
As the students of all high school grade levels fill up the lab, their teacher Sarah Ray begins to lecture them on the finer art of retail seasonality as she stands amid racks of bathing suits and beach towels.
It’s the end of the first year of a retail immersion class called Etail/Retail, which is the brainchild of Tracy Davis, director for the Center for Retail Management at the University of Houston—Downtown.
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Davis started the class, born out of his passion for the industry that he once worked in, as the first step in what he hopes will become a four-year program.
Retailers need good employees, school districts need their students to graduate, and high school students need to know there are career opportunities available to them, Davis said. With the class, it is a way to connect all three, he said.
“I was driving to work one day, and I heard a newsperson say something about people not going to college and ending up in retail and I thought wow, what a great opportunity to end up in retail, and to be able to do just about anything you want to be able to do,” Davis said.
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By “anything,” he isn’t talking only about being a cashier or adding inventory to store shelves—jobs traditionally associated with retail. Davis hopes the program, which will award certificates in retail to the high school students from the University of Houston—Downtown, will show the class that marketing, logistics, accounting, and even meteorology, are all careers that are a part of the industry.
“There is this perception of retail that it is a go-nowhere job, that it doesn’t pay well, so why would a parent say ‘hey son, hey daughter, have you ever thought about going into retail?’ That does not happen because it’s the perception we have to change,” Davis told CNBC.
So how does that perception change? He starts with a dollar figure. He tells students that store managers can make upward of $150,000. Not bad for a career many think of as a fallback option.
He isn’t discouraging the students from going to college—after all he is a professor—rather he is hoping the class inspires them to finish high school with a new perspective on retail; perhaps wanting to carry their newfound interest into higher education. Although, he said, if they do not go to college, their opportunities have not hit a brick wall.
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“We tell them as long as they have a smile on their face and they have the ability to work hard every day, they will have a very successful career,” said Nick Scribner, a human resource manager for Wal-Mart.
Scribner has been working with Scarborough High School, with the support of the retail giant, speaking to the class in school and also bringing them to field visits so students can see every aspect of operating a retail business.
On one of the last field trips of the school year, the students were taught a lesson in produce sourcing and seasonality by a store manager.
That’s one of many lessons that opened the eyes of students such as Ramon Cardanes, who says he had no idea about retail prior to starting the class.
Meanwhile, his classmate, Joel Lopez, is thinking big.
“Maybe I can start my own business since I already have so much insight on retailing—a company that’s as big, or even bigger than Wal-Mart,” he said, with a huge grin and a chuckle.
As for Davis, he said he hopes this relationship with Wal-Mart is just the beginning for the Etail/Retail class. He has already signed on grocery store chain Kroger and auto retailer Firestone Tire and Rubber to sponsor Houston-area high schools for next year, and he hopes this is just the beginning.
“When I was in high school, you did have welding, wood working, automotive and stuff like that,” Davis said. “But one thing you never saw when I was in high school was…retail. Retail is the new gal on the block.”
—By CNBC’s Justin Solomon