Groomed For Success

By Hannah Wallace August 31, 2005

Mary Helen Kress is executive director of the Suncoast Workforce Board, a federally funded organization that each year helps provide free training to 15,000 to 18,000 workers in Sarasota and Manatee counties in "almost any kind of training that's in demand," such as healthcare, computers, construction, clerical, machinists and English as a second language.

"My first job was as a salesperson for a family-owned department store called Blocker's. It was a retail store for upscale women's and girls' clothing in downtown Ocala, right across from the courthouse. I was 14 years old and a ninth grader in high school. Mrs. Blocker would pick me up and take me to work because I couldn't drive.

"I waited on customers and helped them if they were looking for something special, and I operated a cash register. Blouses were only $3.98. I mean really nice blouses. The shoppers were women of means, wives of professional men and so forth, and I was from a longtime Ocala family so I knew everybody anyway. That's where I got my formal for the prom.

"This was 1944 and there were no minimum wage laws. I was paid $5 a day. I worked on Saturdays and occasionally after school, and during the summer I worked three days a week. I saved my money for Christmas shopping and spending money, clothing and shoes and so forth.

"Merchandising is a different world; I learned to follow instructions, how to price merchandise. Customer service skills were the big thing-politeness, telephone answering skills-what employers call today the 'soft skills' that they all complain about. And I learned about appropriate dress and pride in appearance. Mrs. Blocker did not want someone working in her store who was not well groomed."

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