When Li & Fung (Trading) Ltd decided to join hands with the School of Professional Education and Executive Development (SPEED) to organise an in-house training programme for their own merchandising professionals, the company also considered what was needed to enhance overall industry standards.
Therefore, the 20-month diploma programme offered by SPEED, which is affiliated to the Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU) and operated by the College of Professional and Continuing Education, has been designed to be forward-looking and provide participants with a wide spectrum of knowledge.
According to Joanne Ho, Li & Fung's vice president for human resources, the company is the first in Hong Kong to collaborate with an independent educational institute to develop such a comprehensive course for merchandisers. In fact, she regards it as a key milestone in employee development, which will help to improve individual and corporate performance in the long term. Upon completing the programme, trainees will also be eligible to apply for other tertiary-level external courses.
We want new recruits to realise they have great long-term career prospects
Rita Cheung, who is also a vice president for human resources, explains that Li & Fung alone recruits 1,000 people a year and total industry demand multiplies this number. Yet, there are only a few hundred graduates from local universities and technical institutions joining the sector every year and not all of them stay very long.
"It is because the job itself is really tough and the students may not have developed a strong commitment to the business," she says. "They simply want to give it a try after graduating. We want new recruits to realise they have great long-term career prospects, provided they are prepared to work hard and keep learning."
The company takes on trainee merchandisers who are either fresh graduates or non-degree holders with up to two years' work experience. All such recruits start with three months of in-house training before moving on to the intensive SPEED course.
"This provides a fast-track development path for young professionals who might otherwise take four or five years to learn as much," notes Ms Ho.
The programme covers a total of twelve subjects with a focus on developing knowledge in materials, sample and product development, international trade practices and documentation, production processes, quality assurance concepts and product safety requirements, merchandising and sourcing. The aim is to give trainees an advanced understanding of the complete merchandising workflow. It also covers language, communication and IT skills, which are essential for dealing with customers and being able to perform effectively.
For obvious reasons, the curriculum is designed to emphasise core competencies required by the company. So, for example, it incorporates different business models used by Li & Fung for sourcing and supply chain management, as well as their unique IT system. The company places great emphasis on benchmarking the programme with world-class merchandising training to ensure the quality and standards.
Currently, over 50 employees are taking the programme and Ms Ho says there will be two intakes a year. Mainland staff have been given the opportunity to take the course in Hong Kong, but a similar course may be introduced in China next year.
According to Ms Cheung, there is now strong market demand for professional merchandisers with five to eight years' experience. "Such people have the ability to contribute immediately and to play a leading role in the whole process of order management soon after joining," she says. "They know what it takes to deal with customers and coordinate with designers, technicians and quality assurance staff."
In her opinion, the supply chain between factories and end users is getting more complicated every year. This means that merchandisers must keep acquiring new skills and become all-round professionals. Depending on the area they specialise in and the suppliers they source from, they may also have to travel frequently, spending as much as 70 per cent of their working time in mainland China or overseas.
Ms Cheung adds that there is also huge demand for technicians with knowledge of manufacturing and production processes. Besides that, specialist expertise is needed in making samples and monitoring standards for quality assessment.
When recruiting, Ms Cheung has found that the company's brand and reputation as the industry leader do provide an advantage. She also believes that the opportunities created by rapid expansion and the comprehensive training programme will prove to be a major attraction for the best candidates.