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Harnessing the power of employer-led apprenticeships in retail

Future proofing is front and centre in the minds of all businesses. And none more than in retail with the industry having suffered the worst year on record for retail sales growth in 2019

However, whilst employment in the sector has suffered due to a drop in sales, it still remains the UK’s largest private sector employer. It is encouraging therefore that despite the tough conditions, we continue to see plenty of examples of retailers who are investing heavily in their people.

It is predicted there will be 900,000  fewer jobs in retail by 2025 but those remaining will be more productive and higher earning. Attracting and retaining the right talent is paramount to strengthening and streamlining this more efficient pool of people resource.  Appealing to individuals at the beginning of their career or, indeed, those looking for their next step is necessary in order to improve growth, retention and productivity.  This is where apprenticeships stand out. 

Apprenticeships are on the rise with a strong appeal to both businesses and career seekers. The debt free learning, on the job training and clear progression opportunities are obviously enticing to individuals and supply the employer with a loyal, dedicated, hardworking pool of talent keen to develop and progress within their chosen field. 

With 21,000 apprentices now registered on the new retail standards across the sector, more retailers are witnessing and experiencing the benefits of a well-designed and executed employee development offering. Employers also realise working both individually and collaboratively with other invested parties to devise and continually assess current and future standards strengthens their position to attract and nurture future talent into the sector.

The benefits of apprenticeships compared to the more traditional hiring routes

Apprenticeships create an engaged, dedicated, highly skilled employee armed with the best knowledge and behaviour for their role and sector. And in a highly competitive market retailers are having to carefully consider how they get the best return on investment in their people.

Apprenticeships create positive shift in culture towards learning, allowing individuals to move through the company and progress. As a result, businesses using the retail apprenticeship standards are gaining a fantastic pipeline of employees who can see real advancement within the company. This impacts positively on retention and productivity and gains a more loyal and engaged employee. 

"Apprentices have said the programme is excellent, with great support from the Lifetime trainers and the store managers. It’s essential to future proof the business with Iceland, we need well trained individuals and that’s what the programmes will give us going forward.

Jim Murphy, Training and Development Manager, Iceland Foods

Our apprentices receive targeted training that produces highly skilled staff. It has enabled us to build a pipeline of talent that meets our business needs. It has increased retention, productivity and created a positive culture of learning in our business.

Effie Burrell, Learning and Development Consultant, East of England Co-op

Apprenticeships have helped us create a successful succession planning framework by developing our people through the levels.  Our preferred route is to recruit an apprentice into a store vacancy which is proving more successful than traditional hiring routes.

Mandy Bader, Group Head of Learning & Development, EWM Group of Companies

The importance of an employer-led approach to apprenticeships

Apprenticeships have long been reported to deliver benefits to business. However, it’s only since the new-style, employer-led approach to creating standards came into play that businesses – and apprentices – are experiencing their real value.

The current employer-led approach to apprenticeships means that retailers input into the design and evaluation of the apprenticeship standards, giving their businesses the confidence that they are fit for purpose and meet industry needs - ensuring apprentices learn the right skills, knowledge and behaviours to stay, progress and add value. As a result, two more standards are in development, to add to the current suite of seven. 

Uniquely, retailers now have an on-going role in maintaining the quality of apprenticeships. They remain actively engaged in the end-point assessment process, ensuring it is delivering the expected results to continually maximise the effectiveness of apprenticeships.

Employers have the hands on, up to date knowledge and experience around operational change and challenge, they understand what works and what doesn't and where current skills gaps lie.

Lisa Alford, Apprenticeship and Qualifications Lead, Sainsbury’s

When we have put our apprentices through frameworks in the past, they did not see the point of completing the qualification as it beared no relevance to what they needed in order to do in the job.  By employers leading the way in standards and the quality assurance it ensures apprentices are learning the real skills required for each business.

Caroline Gascoigne, National Qualifications Manager, DFS

The employer-led approach is significant in retail as the skills are transferable across the sector regardless of the size of organisation and retail store environment. We all know retail is an ever changing business, so the importance of the continued role of the Retail Skills & Quality Board is essential to maintain the standard relevant to the changing business needs.

Jim Murphy, Training and Development Manager, Iceland Foods

In depth understanding and analysis of our own market is essential in keeping a competitive edge. The ability to react and evolve quickly needs to be equally evident in apprenticeship training and what our colleagues learn about, to keep pace with commercial activity.

Claire Bedding, Apprenticeship Manager, Screwfix

Employers working collaboratively as part of the Retail Skills & Quality Board

Making all of this possible is a group of like-minded retail experts that joined together to form the Retail Skills & Quality Board. The board unites employers, industry bodies, training providers and end-point assessment organisations to act with ‘one voice’, forming a sustainable employer-led approach to apprenticeships.  There’s also the wider interest to align other workplace skills and vocational education activities in the UK.

Members, carefully selected for their combined expertise and passion, each play a significant role in helping to ensure we have a planned and coordinated approach to skills and apprenticeships in order to continually raise professionalism and improve business performance through the development of the workforce.  This collaborative approach is paying off. Supporting and mentoring each other, sharing anecdotes and guiding each other through what can be a complex environment is proving invaluable. It has also allowed businesses to collaborate and discuss areas outside of apprenticeships too – a dialogue which may not otherwise have happened.

Together our voice is stronger, we are all at the forefront of retail and understand when we need to pull together to make changes to processes that don't work.

Mandy Bader, Group Head of Learning & Development, EWM Group of Companies

It is so valuable to see how other employers utilise apprenticeships, it enables an employer to benchmark but also learn best practice and share what has worked well and what has not.  Once collaboration is achieved and a relationship is in place, it goes beyond just apprenticeships, other areas of the business are supported and can be benchmarked too.

Lloyd Thomas, Apprenticeship Partner. The Co-op & Chair of the Retail Skills & Quality Board

It has been great to hear what other types of retailers do and to have the opportunity to share ideas and best practice.

Caroline Gascoigne, National Qualifications Manager, DFS

In collaborating with competitors to set an annual strategy - identifying the skills and apprenticeship priorities for the sector that will help to address critical recruitment and retention challenges - employers have developed a suite of apprenticeship standards that meet the requirements of the industry. This ensures quality, fit for purpose training that is respected and relevant.

Businesses are now starting to reap the benefits of the new standards with a very encouraging pipeline of talent coming through. So, what do they see as the key achievements to this approach?

…the fact we have a suite of standards that are fully supported and respected by the sector and wider sector that are quality assured and monitored to ensure consistency across retail and specialist retail.

Lloyd Thomas, Apprenticeship Partner, The Co-op and Chair of the Retail Skills & Quality Board

Facilitating and achieving industry alignment and professionalism, by bringing together a group of apprenticeship professionals who might otherwise never find the opportunity to achieve the same depth of conversation and detail regarding apprenticeships, outside these meetings.  As well as the opportunity for sense checking and monitoring of assessment plans and grade boundaries.

Claire Bedding, Apprenticeship Manager, Screwfix

Developing the retail standards and being custodians of the quality of delivery and assessment.

Effie Burrell, Learning and Development Consultant, East of England Co-op

For more information on the retail apprenticeships available to your business and employees, click here.

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