Leading retail employers have been working tirelessly over the last four years to develop apprenticeship standards that form structured career progression routes in retail to help professionalise the workforce, raise the profile of retail careers and help challenge perceptions. With 10,000 apprentices now on the new standards, employers are starting to reap the benefits.

The retail industry is often characterised as a low skilled sector, but is that really the case? With a projected 224k managers needed by 2024 the industry offers a wealth of higher level, skilled roles. However because the sector is able to attract younger workers who are generally more transient, staff retention poses more of a challenge. This in turn is has a negative impact on retaining and developing the skills of the current workforce.

To tackle these and other skills challenges, employers on the Retail Skills & Quality Board, facilitated by People 1st International, have been developing a suite of apprenticeship standards that range from retailer at level 2 through to assistant buyer & merchandiser at level 6. With over 10,000 apprentices now registered on retail standards, employers are starting to experience the benefits that apprenticeships offer.

Retail standards: A ladder of progression from entry level through to management

With three standards starting from retailer at level two through to retail manager at level four, the apprenticeships form a progressive career pathway, incorporating the knowledge, skills and behaviours employers have defined for today’s industry. The standards have been designed so that they apply across the sector, allowing organisations to incorporate their own ways of working, products and services into the learning and development, whilst ensuring it meets one national standard.

Approved for delivery in 2016, the standards have since attracted more than 10,000 apprentices.

Marks & Spencer, which currently has over 720 apprentices, believe the standards give their apprentices a much greater breadth and depth of retail knowledge. Through their programmes apprentices learn what they stand for as a business – for example how they are trying to reduce their carbon footprint and supporting local communities; or about innovation in their food products or clothing designs.

As a result this has created real pride in their business but also a better understanding of where they sit in the market place and their customer profile. Above all, their apprentices are more confident – their new knowledge has made them more interested in the retail career path and given them the confidence to go for it.

“We know our apprentices better understand the customer and how to best serve them. They are a more engaged population. They are also more digitally savvy and therefore more able to offer sales across all platforms. We are also seeing better talent developed in our career path: our apprentices are being talent spotted, developing their experience and being promoted which is fantastic.

“The levy has given us access to develop and run training that is raising the bar and giving our colleagues who are passionate and committed to retail, a certification that shows how great they are.”  – Joanna Longman, Retail Workforce Planning & Talent Development Manager, Marks & Spencer

The introduction of the new standards has meant changes to how apprenticeships are delivered and assessed, which hasn’t been without its challenges for businesses.

Superdrug has been investing in apprenticeships for over eleven years, during which time they trained over 3000 apprentices. In transitioning to the new standards, they encountered some early challenges with end-point assessment – particularly around ensuring their apprentices had the confidence to talk to an assessor they’d never met before. As a team, they’ve experienced significant learnings but with 450 apprentices registered on the new standards, they are now seeing far more first time passes and distinctions.

“The standards have a lot more content than the original frameworks and many of our managers now report that our apprentices are their best trained sales assistants. As a result, they want to provide these individuals with a structured pathway through to the retail team leader standard and beyond – which not only gives the apprentices a progressive career route but will also help us to boost retention.” – Sue Renny, Apprenticeship Programme Manager, Superdrug

New buying & merchandising standards: Increasing the breadth of progressive career options

Building on the success of the core retail standards, a further two apprenticeship standards are currently in development for the roles of buying and merchandising assistant at level four, and assistant buyer/merchandiser at level six.

Led by Steinhoff UK Ltd, the standards are being developed by leading retail employers including Superdrug, Arcadia, M&S, Debenhams, JD Sports, John Lewis, Co-operative Group, Sainsburys, Mothercare, Travis Perkins and The Fashion Retail Academy and the Retail Trust.

With a shift in employment habits and expectations, coupled with people’s changing approach to further education, John Lewis believes that employers who choose to ignore apprenticeships will find that the talent pool with the right skill and capability will become smaller and filling vacancies will be more difficult. They see the new buying and merchandising apprenticeships as a route to address two key issues – recruitment and retention.

“We’re seeing large rises in the number of individuals we have to recruit at our buying assistant and merchandising assistant levels as the churn rates increase with colleagues now open to moving around the business to progress their careers and/or leaving to experience something different.

“It therefore makes it incredibly challenging to be able to recruit the right volumes of people with the appropriate level of skill and capability. The apprenticeship scheme really supports this as it allows us to open the net of recruitment away from graduates and/or bought in talent to really strengthen our position of utilising the skill and capability of individuals already in the business who may have previously not been able to access a career in buying and merchandising.

“By making this investment in people and giving them the option to start a new or different career through a universally accepted standard, we hope it will provide more stability on turnover as people stay for longer developing their careers.” – Daniel Hendrey, Partner & Senior Manager, John Lewis

Funeral services standards: Widening the talent pool for employers

Alongside the core retail standards, employers across the sector have also been developing specialist apprenticeship pathways. The funeral services standards have been developed by leading employers including Co-op Funeralcare, Dignity UK, East of England Co-op, Lincolnshire Co-op and the National Association of Funeral Directors.

Having recently been approved for delivery in February 2019, the standards are now available for the roles of funeral team member at level two and funeral director at level three.

With a high proportion of workers in the funeral industry entering as their second or third career, many individuals have a lot of skills and experience required for these roles but don’t necessarily know how to adapt them for a different industry.

Those who are compassionate, empathetic and great at dealing with people and may have developed experience in the army, police force, ambulance service, care or the NHS have a lot of the skills this industry needs. The new apprenticeship standards provide a fantastic opportunity to bring new talent pools in and further develop their skill set.

Co-op, who have been instrumental in the development of the funeral service standards, believes that the new apprenticeships will widen their talent pool and help with retention.

“The funeral services apprenticeships are a great way for employers to support colleagues that are new to the industry in developing a long term career. They provide a great opportunity to broaden our talent pool and enable us to offer a great programme that develops rounded individuals.

“The standards ensure that we’ve got fantastically developed colleagues that have been given the best development that meets an industry defined standard – they don’t just know what they’re doing, they understand why and how to do it.” – Roz Milligan, Strategic L&D Business Partner, Co-op

View from the chair of the Retail Skills & Quality Board

Chair of the Retail Skills & Quality Board, Lloyd Thomas, Apprenticeship Partner at Co-op sums up his view of what the board has achieved:

“As a collective, members of the Retail Skills & Quality Board have taken a planned and coordinated approach to skills, which, without doubt, is helping the sector to maximise the skills of existing talent whilst building a pipeline for the future.

“With over 10,000 apprentices now registered on the retail standards, we’re extremely proud of what we’ve achieved. Employers are now starting to experience the benefits that the new standards offer in terms of developing talent, driving retention and increasing productivity – and it’s fantastic to see the value that the employer-led approach to apprenticeships brings.

“Taking an active role in the development of the standards mean that we can be confident that the apprenticeships meet our needs as employers, and in embedding them as a critical part of our talent strategies they provide a valuable progression route for both new and existing employees. Our role doesn’t stop there though – having opted for an employer-led approach to quality assurance in retail, with the support of People 1st International, we now have an active role in maintaining the quality of apprenticeships.”

To find out more about the work of the Retail Skills & Quality Board visit: www.people1st.co.uk/retail-skills-quality-board