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An overview of engineering careers in retail

Engineering careers in retail: industry sector overview

In retail, engineers can build and refurbish stores, improve technical processes and reduce a company's carbon footprint.

Engineering plays a vital role in the retail business. An important area of work is in the retail outlets themselves: existing stores need to be regularly refitted or refreshed and new ones built in line with any programme of expansion. As an engineer you could also be involved in delivering aspects of a retailer’s corporate environmental policy. Many retailers are concerned about the need to reduce their carbon footprint, so projects could include introducing small windfarms, developing the use of natural refrigerants, harvesting rainwater for carwashes and for in-store use, using novel construction materials to build new stores and introducing biofuels to petrol filling stations. There are also a whole variety of day-to-day challenges to address, from designing an unbreakable cash machine to developing automated store monitoring and control systems.

Starting out in your first graduate engineering job

As a graduate you would apply to an accredited engineering development graduate programme, which would typically entail two years as a ‘graduate apprentice’ followed by a period of working as a professional engineer to gain experience and meet the requirements of your chosen professional institution. The development programme should be recognised by one of the institutes under the Engineering Council’s scheme for professional status, such as the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, the Institution of Engineering and Technology, the Chartered Institution of Building Services Engineers or the Institution of Chemical Engineers. 

As a graduate trainee, you will begin by applying your technical knowledge in your chosen field (eg if you have a degree in electrical engineering you will start with electrical projects) and by an induction to the general business so that you understand the different functions (eg HR, finance) and the business operating model. After this, you will attain practical skills by working on secondment with contractors and doing small projects as well as sections of larger projects.

Career development for engineers in retail

As your experience increases, you will be exposed to other disciplines such as mechanical or civil engineering, and start to develop your technical and commercial leadership skills by becoming involved at project management level. Further down the line, you will be encouraged to manage larger projects so that you will eventually be able to lead multidisciplinary teams.

Many engineers use their engineering experience as a launch pad into other parts of the business to attain senior executive management positions. The skills developed as an engineer in ‘making things happen’ are highly sought after.

Skills engineering graduates need for a career in retail

As a graduate coming into retail on an accredited engineering development programme you will need to: demonstrate your knowledge and understanding of engineering principles; apply your engineering knowledge practically; develop technical and commercial leadership skills; have good interpersonal skills; and act in a professional manner at all times. Working in engineering also requires a degree of flexibility: for example, you may sometimes need to work unusual hours. However, the engineering role is constantly changing to keep up with technical developments and there are opportunities to work all over the world if this is something that interests you.

Thanks to Mark Hawker for his help with this article. Mark has a degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Southampton and is head of engineering at Sainsbury's.

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