Work: Other Paths to a Canadian Career

By Patricia Parulekar

If you’re a newcomer to Canada who is facing the very real and challenging dilemma of having to find a “survival job” – a low-wage job to pay the bills while you struggle to find a position that leads to a rewarding career – then there is one proven career path that deserves a good hard look.

For many of us, what we see is what we believe. We go to a grocery store and see the person stocking shelves – and from then on, we believe that grocery “is” the person stocking shelves. Certainly stock people and cashiers are the most visible people in the industry, and grocery certainly does provide survival jobs to tens of thousands of students, immigrants, and people returning to the workforce. But there are many rewarding career paths in the industry – and you may not even be aware that they exist.

Grocery retailers, from the high-end or larger independents to the major chains, do require specialized professionals. They also prefer to train and promote from within. I think this ‘grow our own’ attitude about professional development in the grocery sector is important to understand for newcomers.

Some Food for Thought

In grocery, that ‘survival job’ can quickly turn into a real career. The industry does need managers and leaders in many fields, from human resources to food preparation and logistics to many types of management positions. Many grocery leaders tell me they prefer that such positions as finance, marketing and IT be filled by people who have worked “on the floor”. You see, people and food are the heart of the business – if you don’t understand what happens in a store, there is no way you will be able to understand the rest of the industry either. It is not unusual to see job posting that say something like “Previous Department Head or Assistant Department Head experience required”.

There are many success stories. Career paths often show steady progress, with someone beginning as a Grocery Clerk; rising to an in-store managerial position in a department like Dairy or Produce; and then becoming more corporate – possibly in Human Resources or Merchandising; and sometimes rising to Director positions at regional and head offices.

Immigrants certainly are finding rewarding careers in grocery. Compare the career mobility of visible minorities in grocery sector to the rest of Canadian industry. A recent CGHRC sector study found that15.3 per cent of the grocery labour force are visible minorities, and 23 per cent are managers and senior managers. Visible minorities comprise some 15 per cent of the labour force across all industries in Canada but 13 per cent are in management and only 8.6 per cent are in senior management.

I’ve had the privilege of meeting with owners of independent grocers all over Canada and working with the Vice-Presidents of Human Resources of all of the majors – I know that they want their employees to reflect the community. Most of the majors have set, if not met, their diversity targets. After all, in a people business, it makes sense to have employees who are able to communicate with customers in the language of the customers – as well as be solid sources of information about the tastes of their customers. In other words, it’s an industry that’s happy to celebrate diversity. Why not, it’s profitable! It benefits the stores, the employees and the customers.

A Taste of What the Futures Holds in Store

Grocery retail and wholesale companies value learning – life-long learning. They do their best to provide on-the job training and accommodate taking courses to support professional development. The hours are flexible by definition, so it’s easier to accommodate people taking courses.

There are certain types of people who are more suited to the industry; as I mentioned, it’s a people industry but it’s also one that rewards going the extra mile. It also operates at a much faster pace than any other retail type, and food safety issues make it more complex. Thinking on your feet and leaping in to solve problems without being told to do so are valued characteristics to the industry.

The grocery sector is also pretty recession-proof. People eat no matter what the economy is doing. Furthermore, as shown in the CGHRC sector study, Canada’s economics and demographics represent the significant potential for grocery careers. In 2009, the grocery industry represented approximately 20 percent of total retail sales in Canada, generating some $81.5 billion in sales (up from $68.3 billion in 2004).

In fact, between August 2009 and August 2010, sales for supermarket and grocery stores rose 4.7 percent, and specialty stores did even better at 7.9 percent. And consumers are demanding more specialized offerings from bakery, meat, floral and deli departments – all of which demand higher skilled employees. And demographic factors increasingly favour job seekers. As Canada ages, employers – including grocery retailers – are working harder to recruit. Many of the majors have unions, which translates into good benefits packages.

Finally, once you’ve been trained, you will be valuable anywhere you go, since skills learned in Atlantic Canada are also needed in Western Canada.

If you have a passion for making people happy through food, I hope that in your employment search, you consider matching that enthusiasm with a desire for professional development.

The Canadian Grocery HR Council (CGHRC) is funded by the government of Canada’s Sector Council program to serve the human resource needs of the grocery retail/wholesale sector. We serve some 95 percent of the industry, from coast to coast, from the largest to the smallest companies.