For British retailing to retain its position as a global player, it is essential that the industry attracts the UK's brightest and best young people, says consultative document "Bridging the Gap - building a partnership between retail and education".

The document, issued by the Foresight retail and consumer services panel, proposes a new partnership between retailing and education.

One of the main problems facing retail recruitment is that many school leavers and graduates are unaware that retailing is the biggest UK employer outside the public sector, employing a workforce of three million and producing an annual turnover of some £260bn. Nor are students aware of the diversity of careers and earning opportunities available within the industry.

Sir John Banham, chairman of Kingfisher plc and chair of the Foresight retail and consumer services panel said: "The key to future competitive advantage lies in ensuring that our people have the skills and the education to enable them to sustain retailing at the forefront of the UK economy. Innovative and creative educational learning approaches must be developed, and retailers must forge long-term links with local education providers." He is convinced that the only way to ensure UK retail's future success is to bring the sector together with education and government.

The British Institute of Retailing (BIR) and its partners, including the Distributive National Training Organisation (DNTO) and the Union of Shop, Distributive, and Allied Workers (USDAW) are important conduits for facilitating this new approach. They would work closely with established intermediaries, such as the Learning and Skills Councils and Education Business Partnerships, to ensure that new technologies such as e-commerce and distance learning are fully exploited.

"The industry is acutely aware that its future in the e-commerce age must be anchored in a strategic alliance with schools, colleges and universities to develop the workforce of tomorrow," said BIR's chairman, Barry Gibson, group chief executive of The Littlewoods Group plc.

The consultation also proposes two pilots: one based in a rural environment such as the South West and another with an urban focus in the North East of England. Each could create models around which the partnership between education and retailing could be developed over a three-year period. If successful, a national rollout for the scheme is possible.

By Peter Embling