My Retail Story: Erin O’Hanley

Retail jobs are a Canadian resume standard, a vital rung on the employment ladder. But the retail industry and retail workers are facing significant challenges. In the first half of 2020, the pandemic led to a loss of 1.3 million retail jobs. Retail is among the top three industries at high risk of automation, and the Great Resignation further impacts the retail sector.

While the skills gained working in retail are vital and increasingly in-demand, barriers still exist for those seeking new opportunities. The Venture for Canada Reskilling Retail Workers Project explores career pathways for folks with retail experience. Learn more about retail as a career foundation through My Retail Story, a series of interviews with folks who got their start in retail.

Erin! Thanks so much for joining us today. Can you tell us a bit about yourself and what you do at Venture for Canada?

I have worked at Venture for Canada for almost exactly three years, and currently, my role is the Director of People Operations and Finance. I lead all of our internal efforts around people and culture and how Venture for Canada works administratively. I have my hand in project management and communications buckets. My day-to-day ranges from our employee experience to some of our legal and administrative requirements to the employer and participant experience working with us on processing wage subsidies.

You wear a lot of hats, and it’s such a critical role. Before joining the VFC team, your career journey took off in retail. Can you tell us a bit about it?

Two years after I graduated from university, I was laid off from working in theatre. I bounced around for a year looking for work in the space I’d gone to school for but wasn’t finding anything, and I had rent to pay! I dabbled in the gourmet coffee industry when I was in university, so it seemed like an easy place to go back to. I applied and immediately got hired as a barista at a well-known coffee chain in Toronto. At first, I thought of it as a place to be while I was job searching and saw it as a this-is-paying-my-bills job. I was very open about that with my employer, and surprisingly, they were very supportive. Over time, they also recognized my skills and offered me opportunities to leverage them. I was promoted and became a Shift Supervisor, where I was running an eight-hour block of the day. Then they invited me to apply to be an Assistant Store Manager and then a Store Manager. Within about three years, I managed a store on my own in downtown Toronto.

Wow – no small feat! You made a great point about recognizing skills and leveraging them. From your perspective, what skills did you gain working in retail that you have carried into the subsequent phases of your career?

  1. Working With Others
    Our store saw several hundred people during our morning rush. Folks came from all walks of life, and each person had very different needs, different communication styles, and very different expectations. I learned how to approach all of those, and I had to figure out what they needed, what they were expecting, and how to serve them best. In my role today, I’m probably the person who engages the most with our different staff members. I typically have a touchpoint with each staff member every month, and each person has a unique set of expectations in terms of how VFC supports them and their development needs.
  2. Quick Decision-Making and Fast Trust
    In my retail workplace, you couldn’t second-guess yourself. You had to make decisions and go with them. Sometimes my store was open 20 hours a day, and obviously, there were only so many hours I could be there. Often, the person you were handing the keys to was nervous. It may have been their first time in a supervisory role (something I loved about retail was offering that type of opportunity to people), but you had to trust them and not worry about them. As a manager, that skill can take time to develop, but my retail experience allowed me to fast-track that learning.  With any type of rapid growth, there are a lot of quick decisions and a lot of trusts built into the process, especially at a startup. When I think about what fast trust means, it’s the ability to delegate and trust someone else to do something.
  3. People Operations
    I learned a lot about teaching, coaching, and supporting the development of others, and I use these skills a lot at VFC. Working in retail sparked a desire to stay in the learning and development business and supported my decision to go into People Operations.

It’s so clear that a strong foundation in your retail experience is directly transferable to your current role. What advice would you give to a young person who also has a foundation in retail and is getting ready to explore their next chapter?

Don’t limit yourself, and don’t ever feel limited by your retail experience. Share it and champion it.

I was interviewing someone for a non-retail sales role, and when I asked about their sales experience, they answered that they didn’t have any. I was blown away because the candidate had just told me about their experience as an Assistant Manager at McDonald’s. All knowledge has value, and no one should ever dismiss retail experience. I think it’s really important for young people working in retail to identify their gaining skills and talk about them. If you can count money and balance the register at the end of the night, your numerical literacy is strong. If you’re influential on the floor, then you’ve got excellent customer service skills and the ability to problem solve at the moment. Those skills, and so many others needed to work in retail, are also required in other sectors. Being able to identify, talk about, and champion them is powerful.

That is excellent advice! Is there anything else you want to share with us?

As I think about retail workers, I reflect on the level of exhaustion that exists for folks working in that space. When I left, I was burnt out, and while I was working in that environment, I didn’t recognize those signs. I have friends still in retail who feel stuck and can’t do something else. That’s why a project like this is so important to me because we tend to undervalue those people, and we don’t always recognize how hard it is to transfer out of that space.


Thank you for sharing that, Erin. There have certainly been increased pressures on retail workers in the past few years of the pandemic, on top of what, in many cases, was already a very demanding work environment with many unwritten responsibilities. Thinking about a more inclusive, innovative, and entrepreneurial Canada, what is your vision?

My vision for Canada is acting on opportunities to create innovative and inclusive spaces and a place where everyone has the opportunity to leverage their skills and grow to their biggest potential regardless of what their access points are. It’s a Canada where barriers to access don’t exist.

The pandemic and automation have widened employment gaps, and displacement factors disproportionately affect women, Indigenous, and racialized communities. The Reskilling Displaced Retail Workers Project is a project funded by the Government of Canada’s Future Skills Centre. The project supports the design of a reskilling program focusing on racialized and Indigenous youth in Ontario. To learn more about the project or participate in our program testing, join our Recovery Community.

Una Lounder Una is a graduate of the MMIE (Master of Management Innovation and Entrepreneurship)...