Big-name retailers are backing Local Employment Partnerships, which give the long-term unemployed a chance with none of the associated risks. Katie Kilgallen assesses the benefits

The retail industry is one of the UK’s biggest employers, with Tesco alone creating 7,000 jobs each year. However, there remains more than 3 million people in the UK who have been out of work and on government benefits for more than a year.

A lack of confidence and skills among the long-term unemployed and retailers’ reluctance to consider this group can stop the unemployed stepping into these roles. Local Employment Partnerships (LEPs) are being promoted by the Government as an opportunity for companies to mitigate any risks involved in hiring the long-term unemployed and access this often untapped resource. And major retailers are becoming increasingly aware that they can be an effective part of their recruitment strategies.

The potential for a new supermarket to regenerate a deprived area is great. Following the opening of Sainsbury’s 60,000 sq ft superstore in the Castle Vale estate near Birmingham, unemployment rates dropped from 26 to 5 per cent. Subsequently, the number of local schoolchildren achieving five GCSEs trebled and criminal offences fell by a third.

Pat Maloney, senior account manager at Jobcentre Plus (JCP), the organisation that delivers the Government’s side of the deal, believes that using LEPs as part of your recruitment strategy for store openings can be a win-win situation for retailers, the long-term unemployed and the community as a whole. “Training courses can be set up for the numbers required. The JCP does not levy a fee – it’s got to make good business sense,” she says.

John Lewis has an ambitious expansion plan in place to open at least 10 stores between now and 2014. Managing director Andy Street says: “We will want to recruit a diverse workforce that reflects the communities in which we will trade and has the right mix of skills. We are sure that being part of the LEP will give us an enhanced chance of securing the people we need.”

However, big store openings are not the only area where LEPs can prove useful. A variety of options is open to retailers, including work trials, open days and subsidised employment schemes. All can be tailored to suit a company’s needs.

JCP’s account managers, who have extensive knowledge of the local labour market, meet and advise local retail representatives, who will have an acute awareness of the needs of their particular store. Maloney says: “The key is to be flexible and tailor that agreement to meet the needs of that employer.”

Trial period

Maloney says a number of high-profile retailers, including B&Q, Wilkinson, Debenhams and Marks & Spencer, piloted the scheme in one or two areas and have now gone company-wide with the initiative.

Maloney acknowledges that some employers have fears about taking on people who have been on benefits for a long time. “We try to encourage them to try to employ them. LEPs are designed to mitigate those risks and fears,” she says.

She adds that LEPs are only part of the answer to recruitment and not the whole solution. “JCP does recognise that companies are in business to make money. LEPs are part of that, but not all of that.”

Many of the big high street names have established independent schemes in place. Through its Marks and Start programme, M&S takes people who have been unable to find employment and allows them to try out a job at one of its stores. The initiative enables people to acquire the confidence and skills needed to re-enter the job market; 40 per cent have gone on to gain employment afterwards.

Tesco has hired more than 2,000 long-term unemployed people in the past eight years through its Tesco Job Guarantee scheme. Formal qualifications and CV scanning play no part in the recruitment process. Instead, candidates go to “first impressions” interviews, where they are assessed on the basis of their attitudes and behaviours. If successful, candidates attend a six-week, pre-employment course and are guaranteed employment with Tesco at the end of it.

There is successful work under way, but LEPs can offer a structured way for retailers to work together and maximise the potential of these schemes. At the end of last year, Tesco retail director David Potts, in his role as retail champion of LEPs, organised an LEP Retail Workshop in London to get all the top high street retailers working to move the initiative forward.

He believes getting together to share ideas for best practice and getting these partnerships integrated into recruitment processes at a local level should be the next step. Potts says: “I don’t see an end to it – there’s more we can do.”

Maloney agrees. “We always want more retailers to sign up, but we do want to develop those relationships that have been signed. We would like LEPs to become a standard part of the recruitment process,” she says.

Potts adds that the opportunity of a career in retail can offer the inspiration and motivation needed to get out of the rut of long-term unemployment. “The size of our operation means that people are inspired to work with us – mind you, it helps when you’ve started to open stores in sunny California,” he says.

Scaling the dizzy heights of the career ladder and postings in exotic locations are not the images that people often associate with retail. But, for a sector struggling to gain credibility in the employment market, LEPs can provide an opportunity to remedy that through publicity work with JCP.

It is clear that many retailers are working hard to help the long-term unemployed for the benefit of both parties, but there is some way to go before LEPs become embedded in retailers’ recruitment strategies. However, coming together to share best practice, the industry is moving a step closer to maximising the potential of these partnerships.

Local Employment Partnerships: the opportunities

Work trials A standard work trial lasts three weeks. They aim to give employers the opportunity to test candidates to see if they are right for them. Candidates continue to receive benefits, so do not need paying. JCP also pays travel and meal allowances.

Pre-employment training Tailored training courses provide the long-term unemployed with the basic skills they need for the job. They are useful for bigger retailers that often recruit in large numbers – for store openings, for example.

Subsidised employment schemes These are for people on the New Deal scheme. JCP subsidises the first six months of employment, with employers receiving£60 a week for those aged between 18 and 24 and£70 a week for employees over 25 years old.

Open days Specific open days can be arranged and publicised through JCP. They give employers and potential employees the chance to meet on a relatively informal basis.