Success Stories

Students Learn Work Skills at Retail Training Center

By Lee G. Healy

South Carolina School for the Deaf and the Blind students are getting a foot in the door to gainful post-graduation employment through the school’s new Retail Training Center.

Students and school leaders celebrated the center’s grand opening earlier this month. It’s part of the school’s Applied Academics Center, which aims to enhance students’ academic knowledge through hands-on applications in various career areas.

From customer service to shipping and receiving to sales, Retail Training Center students learn the ins and outs of every aspect of the retail business. The center is a scaled down version of a real retail store, complete with stocked shelves, a delivery truck loaded with boxes and a working cash register.

The Retail Training Center was made possible by the school’s fundraising arm, the South Carolina School for the Deaf and the Blind Foundation, and a $75,000 grant from the Walmart Foundation. It’s open to any interested student in any of the campus’ schools — the School for the Deaf, the School for the Blind and Cedar Springs Academy. The training can be tailored to each student’s abilities.

“It goes back to the school’s mission of providing comprehensive programs and services that empower our students to achieve independence and self-sufficiency,” said Ann Akerman, CEO of the South Carolina School for the Deaf and the Blind Foundation. “They’re able to take the academic pieces of their educational programs within the classrooms and apply that within the Applied Academics Center.”

Akerman said the school’s foundation worked closely with Walmart Foundation representatives to get SCSDB students the solid, transferable job skills they need to work in the retail business. Local Walmart employees volunteered time and donated merchandise to create the retail classroom space.

“The purpose is to give these kids who want to live a normal life but unfortunately have a disadvantage when they’re going to get a job an advantage by giving them the basic skills they’ll need to get a job,” said Jeremy Ethridge, store manager of the Dorman Centre Walmart.

Ethridge said all Walmart store managers in the state are aware of the program. Knowing that applicants already have a working knowledge of the retail business, he said, is a huge incentive for employers.

“They come in with a good ground, basic level of how to operate a retail store. The basic skills,” Ethridge said. “It’s going to help tremendously.”

Chelsea Spann, a post-graduate student from the School for the Deaf, works as a department manager in the Retail Training Center. She trains other students to properly stock shelves and understand bar codes. When Spann, 18, of Charleston, graduates from SCSDB in June, she has a job lined up at Walmart.

“Before, I was nervous and really wasn’t sure (about working in retail), but now that I’ve been doing this Walmart training, I know what’s required,” said Spann, through an interpreter. “I’m not as nervous.”

Dearon Harrington, a senior in the School for the Deaf, hopes to work in shipping and receiving after training in the school’s new center. Harrington earned his forklift certification through SCSDB.

“We learn from experience here,” said the 20-year-old Wallace resident through an interpreter. “So now when we go out to the real store, we know what to expect.”

A dozen other students also work in the Retail Training Center, five days a week for three-and-a-half hours each day. They rotate from one area to the next to gain a comprehensive understanding of the retail business.

These students are among about 120 enrolled in the Applied Academics Center, which also includes training in agriculture, architecture, marketing, hospitality, information technology and more.

“When kids come into the program, we’ll take standards they’re learning in their core classes and put them at the applied level,” said Bill James, AAC director. “They’re applying standards they’re taught. They’re learning all of those things they need to work in a retail store.”

Economics, for example, is put into practice as students learn about supply and demand. They’ll learn how to adjust prices according to product popularity.

None of the center’s merchandise is actually for sale.

Tony Lee, the Retail Training Center teacher, said the program is off to a promising start. Students are learning and are excited about entering the workforce after graduation. After working in the center, students already have resume-ready skills, Lee said.

“Our main goal is to get them working somewhere,” Lee said. “We’re trying to increase the percentage of students being gainfully employed.”