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Retail embarks on a learning curve

A new skills academy aims to provide tailored retail training and make the sector a more attractive career option

Apprenticeship schemes are traditionally associated with trades and crafts such as plumbing and carpentry, rather than retail.

And with the economy in recession, it may be that spending time and money taking on apprenticeship schemes is not at the top of the agenda for retailers.

However, next month will see the launch of the UK’s first National Skills Academy for Retail, which aims to create a consistent programme of training, apprenticeships and skills development for the industry.

The academy will create a unified network of walk-in skills shops which will offer qualification programmes, careers services, training courses and store management programmes.

The academy is being set up by Skillsmart Retail, the national skills council for the retail industry, and has been developed after discussions with retailers to understand what skills development programmes they need.

Skillsmart Retail is hoping to dispel perceptions about apprenticeships, and demonstrate the benefits for retailers and apprentices. It has teamed up with Theo Paphitis, retail entrepreneur and star of BBC TV show Dragons’ Den, who will act as an apprenticeship ambassador for Skillsmart.

A chance to progress

Paphitis is a great believer in the value of apprenticeships. “Retail apprenticeships are a wonderful way for people like me, who are not academic but have so much to offer, to get into the world of retail and find out that it’s a fantastic career and doesn’t just start and stop with being a sales assistant. It really allows you to progress on the job,” he says.

“We are in tough times but we can’t afford not to train staff. If the customer is rarer than before it is important that when they come in store they get service so they spend money.”

Many retailers already spend a large amount of time, effort and money on training. Marks & Spencer has run training schemes for its employees for years. Its head of retail training Lesley Davies says: “We have a very effective in-house training programme. Training boosts retention rates. For a lot of businesses, the key period when people leave is the first couple of years, and having an apprenticeship scheme can stop that.

“From M&S’s point of view, we train all levels of our staff and it gives a good career path programme. For some staff it may also be a motivation to have a recognised
qualification. It’s a win-win situation.”

However, Skillsmart Retail says that overall the retail sector has a lack of skills and qualifications compared with other industries. It says a quarter of retail workers do not have the equivalent of an NVQ qualification, with 15% having no qualifications at all.

Retail staff turnover is high, making it difficult to develop career structures, according to the UK Commission for Employment and Skills, which says that 1.18 million people are expected to leave their retail careers by 2017.

The National Skills Academy for Retail aims to improve this situation by creating a consistent national approach for training and skills development. Retailers will have to pay for membership of the academy and use of its network of skills shops, but will be able to apply for funding for their training schemes via a bidding process to the Learning and Skills Council and Jobcentre Plus.

Skillsmart Retail’s employer engagement director Simon Blower says the National Skills Academy’s coherent apprenticeship schemes and qualifications will provide definite benefits for retailers.
“With training and apprenticeships you get a better qualified workforce which is more productive and is more likely to stay with that organisation for a long time. They will create the management team that will take that business forward,” he says.

Business benefits

● A low-cost training programme which adds value
● The average cost to a business to run an apprenticeship is less than the amount of government funding available
● A higher level of productivity as training is mostly on the front line rather than in classrooms
● Higher retention rates and lower recruitment costs

Price of learning

  • £2,305 Average annual cost of taking on an apprentice
  • 1.18m Number of people expected to leave retail by 2017

Sources: Apprenticeship Ambassadors Network; UK Commission for Employment and Skills

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