John Lewis Partnership chairman Charlie Mayfield has warned retailers they face the business equivalent of climate change unless they focus on developing employees’ skills.

Speaking at last week’s employer conference organised by Skillsmart Retail, Mayfield said that despite tough times at present, it would be short-sighted to ignore the need to invest in skills, both to strengthen businesses and attract staff.

He said it was essential for retailers, through involvement with Skillsmart, to engage with the government, making the case for skills and articulating more clearly what business needs.

He maintained that staff retention is “worth millions” to employers and equally employees want to know what companies are going to do for them. Mayfield said: “10 years ago climate change was a big challenge. There were a lot of naysayers that said nothing’s going to happen tomorrow. Cycle forward 10 years and the situation is very different. Maybe skills is the climate change of this decade.”

Kingfisher group chief executive Ian Cheshire also spoke at the event. He said: “The danger is the skills agenda becomes nice to have rather than a must do. If we don’t get across the idea of retail as a profession we will be disadvantaged.”