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Retailers’ thoughts are more closely attuned to the needs of students in late summer than at any other time during the year. Back-to-school season represents one of biggest selling opportunities on the industry calendar, as young people prepare for a new school year during which they will need to be equipped with everything from notebooks, pencils and backpacks to apparel and shoes, and a variety of electronic devices.

While results for the just concluded B-T-S season have yet to be completely tallied, the National Retail Federation, in projections based on an annual consumer survey, estimates that B-T-S sales will reach $82.8 billion in 2018, one of the top three years ever. Students headed for college and graduate school (or their parents) were expected to spend $942.17 apiece, and families with children in Kindergarten through senior year in high school were projected to spend $684.70 per student.

In light of those numbers, it’s understandable if, for many mass retail executives, the first thing that comes to mind when the subject of education arises is getting customers the products they need at the best possible price. But in today’s ever more sophisticated marketplace it’s essential that they also think about how the people whom they rely on to help make the business successful are fully prepared for the challenges that await them.

A generation or two ago, most of the executives who ran retail chains got their start in stores and worked their way up through the ranks, learning the business as they went along. An increasing number of people with MBA degrees or other academic training have supplemented management in recent years. Finding the right balance between hands-on experience and systematic mastery of such disciplines as accounting and finance, business intelligence and analytics, and marketing is essential for chains that want to succeed in the current hypercompetitive market, where consumers have an unprecedented degree of information and power, omnichannel excellence is expected, and the reach of rival merchants often extends across the globe.

The Food Marketing Program at St. Joseph’s University’s Haub School of Business is one of the organizations that has succeeded in bridging that gap. The school (which in 1988 was renamed in honor of Erivan K. Haub, a principal in the Tengelmann Group, one of Germany’s largest retailers, whose holdings at one time included The Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Co. in the United States) established what is now one of only four food marketing programs in this country in 1962. Its mission was teaching students the business skills they need to play an important part in an industry dedicated to meeting the most basic of human needs. St. Joseph’s continues to succeed in achieving that objective, but it could be argued that the name of the program is something of a misnomer, since the knowledge and skills imparted to students pursuing M.S. and MBA degrees there are in high demand throughout the retail industry as well as among the manufacturers that make the products that are sold in their stores.

Backed by the resources of the Haub School of Business — which ranks among the top 25 academic institutions in the country in such areas as marketing, finance, management information systems, and insurance and risk management — students enrolled in the Food Marketing Program receive rigorous training in core courses covering subjects that include the global food industry, understanding the customer and consumer, and retail food marketing management.

The classroom instruction is supplemented by a cooperative education program that takes selected students and enables them to continue learning in a ­real-world setting. Working with an impressive roster of retailers and CPG companies, including CVS Pharmacy, Target, Ahold Delhaize, Johnson & Johnson and Kraft/Heinz, St. Joseph’s gives participants in the five-year, project-based program three consecutive six-month, paid work experiences during the course of their training. The students become part of the staff at the host companies and are exposed to the complexities of dealing with business challenges in marketing, merchandising, supply chain and logistics, and more.

“The exposure that the kids receive to business professionals and how companies really operate is invaluable,” says Joe Bivona, executive director of the Academy of Food Marketing at St. Joseph’s, which provides support to students, including scholarships, internships and cooperative education, counseling and placement. “Our students go into the co-ops with a solid grounding in business, and this takes things to another level. It’s great for the students and for the companies involved, which get some added help and have a chance to look at prospective employees before they graduate.”

Bivona knows what he’s talking about. Prior to joining St. Joseph’s last year, he was the longtime head of trade relations at Time Inc. Retail, a role in which he worked closely with the nation’s leading food, drug and discount chains and their suppliers. “After being in close contact with successful businesspeople, the students come out of the co-ops ready to hit the ground running,” he says. “The presentations they make at the end of the process are often more polished and compelling than many that I sat through during the course of my career.”

For mass market retailers and CPG suppliers, the students described by Bivona are clearly worth considering when they go to fill job openings. The companies might also want to think about playing a more direct role in the development of the next generation of talent for the retailing and consumer products sectors. St. Joseph’s Food Marketing Program is a win for students, and it seems evident that its benefits extend well beyond those individuals to the industry as a whole.