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Fashion apprentices on the inside track

David Cameron wants to create 3 million apprentices by 2020, and the fashion retail industry is set to benefit

Fashion Enter provides technical fashion apprenticeships UNP MAS 33672 Fashion Enter London029

Fashion Enter provides technical fashion apprenticeships

Source: Fashion Enter

Alexander McQueen, Stella McCartney, Karen Millen – all internationally renowned in the fashion world and they all started their careers as apprentices. But despite these success stories, attracting young people through apprenticeships – alongside the loss of skills as the existing workforce ages – is one of the biggest issues the industry faces.

The government is now taking steps to modernise the system and retailers are gearing up to meet the changes.

In December the government unveiled ”English Apprenticeships – Our 2020 Vision” – a package of measures that includes an apprenticeship levy set at 0.5% of the total wage bill for all businesses paying wages of more than £3m a year from April 1 2017. Employers will receive a tax allowance of £15,000 to offset against their levy payment.

National youth unemployment is around 13.7% – the equivalent of 628,000 young people aged 16 to 24 – and just 6% of 16-to-18-year-olds are involved in an apprenticeship. Prime minister David Cameron hopes to create 3 million apprentices by 2020 and significantly reduce unemployment, while increasing the ratio of 16-to-18-year-olds starting apprenticeships to one in 10.

Gemma Robertson, talent partner of, which has six apprentices across its retail, buying, merchandising and garment technology teams, believes the fashion industry will benefit from a renewed focus.

“We see apprenticeships at as a great way of bringing in new, enthusiastic talent with innovative and fresh ideas,” she says. “It is also a way for us to develop the skills we need for our future teams and allow us to build a strong talent pipeline.”

At the end of this month, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills is expected to finalise how the apprenticeship levy money will be returned to employers – probably in the form of a digital voucher to pay for apprenticeship training with skills providers. Businesses with an annual wage bill below £3m will receive the remaining money from the apprenticeship levy pot once larger firms have made use of the funds.

Despite warnings from the British Retail Consortium and CBI about the impact of the potential additional cost to retailers, Anthony Thompson, Fat Face chief executive, says he supports the levy.

“It’s reasonable to expect funding of this sort to be drawn from the industry,” he says. “I would just ask for the process to be kept simple and clear, and for it to be fair and cost effective.

“As for smaller businesses taking from the pot, anything that promotes learning and development has got to be good for retail. If we’re able to support talent in retail coming through, it shouldn’t matter if that’s happening in small businesses or big businesses.”

Lifestyle independent Ann’s Cottage, which has three apprentices, is one of the small businesses that will benefit from the scheme.

“Since first taking on apprentices last year, we’ve really seen the benefits as a business. More financial support could mean we take on even more,” says area manager April Wakeling. “The future of retail should be based around apprenticeships because they can be moulded to the requirements of each company.”

The future of retail should be based around apprenticeships because they can be moulded to the requirements of each company

April Wakeling, area manager, Ann’s Cottage 

In addition to the new funding model that will operate across the UK, in England all schemes are being reviewed and moved from existing frameworks to new Apprenticeship Standards, which will comprise an assessment plan and graded end test, overseen by a new Institute of Apprenticeships to be set up by April 2017.

Last month employers, including fashion multiples and manufacturers, met with skills body Creative Skillset’s UK Fashion and Textiles Skills Council to start discussions around new apprenticeships for the sector. Partnership manager Jayne West says the overriding feeling was “one of collaboration on the issue”.

“Some apprenticeship provisions in the fashion and textiles, leather and footwear industries work well in certain circumstances, but there is a need to refresh content in some areas, and modernise others,” she said.

Fashion Enter’s Fashion Technology Centre is the UK’s largest provider of technical fashion apprenticeships.

Chief executive Jenny Holloway explains: “The issue now is about getting these new standards in place, which can only be done by getting businesses together. I question whether there’s time to overhaul the framework system by 2017. The positive is that, if done right, apprenticeships can bring in a new generation of workers to fill the skills gap created by offshoring 30 years ago.”

So while the discussions are a step in the right direction for creating yet more McQueens, McCartneys and Millens through vocational training, as well as the home-grown technical skills to support their manufacturing, the industry awaits the devil in the detail.


Jessica Groom is assistant store manager at Fat Face in Bury St Edmunds

Jessica Groom is assistant store manager at Fat Face in Bury St Edmunds

Meet an apprentice: Jessica Groom

Jessica Groom is assistant store manager at Fat Face in Bury St Edmunds

 “I started working at Fat Face in 2012 at the Ely store in Cambridgeshire as a summer temp. My plan was to take a gap year, then go to university and the job was to save up.

“The apprenticeship, which was an NVQ in customer services, was advertised internally and I thought it would be a great opportunity. The experience opened my eyes to everything else that goes on and what the job roles above me were like.

“I started the apprenticeship in 2013 and became a supervisor not long after. I finished the NVQ in 2014 and moved to the St Ives store in Cambridgeshire to become an assistant store manager. I now work as an assistant store manager in Bury St Edmunds. I’ve progressed through quite a few stages of the business in a short space of time, whereas I think without the NVQ I may have left after the temp job.

“I love my job and the company, and doing an apprenticeship has made me passionate about what they stand for and loyal because of their support. Hopefully I’ll be working in the business for a long time and I’d love to eventually work in learning and development or be a store manager to look after the next round of apprentices.”

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