Plans to raise the school leaving age to 18 will have huge implications for retailers that employ teenage staff, says Katie Kilgallen, and they need to start preparing for the changes now

From 2013, the school leaving age will rise from 16 to 18. Given that there are 45,000 people under 18 working full-time in retail and a further 350,000 part-time staff, this overhaul of the education system cannot fail to have repercussions for the UK retail industry.

Retailers will have to adapt the way they recruit and manage 16- to 18-year-olds or risk cutting off a key source of talent. But Skillsmart Retail chief executive Ann Seaman says it is important to stress that the Government is not calling for young people to be kept behind the school gates for a further two years. “It’s being misrepresented”, says Seaman. “It’s people staying in either full-time education or full-time training.”

The fundamental difference for retailers is that, if they want to recruit 16- to 18-year-olds after 2013, they will have to make sure the training they provide can be mapped to a recognised national qualification.

Tesco personnel director for UK stores and distribution Hayley Tatum says the supermarket chain is working on qualifications that will help it make the transition when the changes to the education system come in. “Obviously, it’s something we have to take seriously because it’s a talent stream that we utilise. We don’t want to be in a position where we won’t be able to offer [16- to 18-year-olds] a route in,” she says.

This is true of a number of larger companies. Many are already geared up to offer NVQs and have apprenticeship schemes in place. Skillsmart Retail is also developing the diploma for 14- to 19-year-olds and is working with leading retailers and education providers to shape its content and establish the necessary industry links to deliver it effectively. The pilot is due to be launched in 2010.

Seaman believes the new focus on vocational and applied qualifications means retailers will attract recruits who genuinely want to work in retail. “The expectation is that, with people making better choices, recruits will be better motivated,” she says. She adds that, over time, this should improve retention rates.

On the job

Tatum agrees that a greater emphasis on qualifications, such as the new diploma, could provide a real boost to the sector, provided the content is right. “We need to make sure we offer a viable route into business,” she says. She believes that ensuring there is enough real work experience will be crucial. “It allows young people to be in a business environment learning about business, rather than a classroom environment,” she adds.

The availability of government funding will also mean many businesses will be eligible for a contribution towards the cost of training. “They get value out of that person without bearing the full cost,” says Seaman.

There are concerns, however, that formalising the entry routes into retail for 16- to 18-year-olds could stop some talent coming into the sector. For many, a first job in retail may have been a stopgap that was never intended to turn into a career, but once in the industry, they found they loved it, stayed and carved a successful career. There is a danger that this accidental stream of long-term recruits will dry up when young people are required to make active career choices at such a young age.

Tatum argues that work needs to be done to ensure young people view retail as an attractive option. She says: “Retail doesn’t always have the best reputation as a career of choice. We have to work with the education system to make sure it is properly presented. The diversity of careers is so wide, but I’m not sure education providers understand that and present retail in that light.”

Seaman agrees that retail has lagged behind other industries in being viewed as an attractive career choice, but believes that this is changing and “more people are thinking of it as a career option”. She adds that initial feedback on the diploma suggests that it is appealing to young people.

The need to provide a more formal framework for training could also make it difficult for smaller or independent retailers to back the qualifications in the same way and make themselves attractive employers for young people. There is a danger that some may struggle and lose out when the changes come in.

Goulds Stores HR director Rebecca Murphy says that although the independent department store in Dorset is relatively well-prepared for this, it is probably the exception. Goulds employs most of its 16-year-old recruits on a part-training basis. Murphy says: “We’ve got in-store training that corresponds to national qualifications. We’re unusual for small indies, but that puts us in a strong position. I’m sure there will be some who don’t have that in place who will find it difficult.”

Seaman agrees that, to some extent, it is relatively easy to get the “big guys” involved, but SMEs need to be made aware that it “has the potential to benefit their business and not to be frightened of it”.

When 2013 comes around, retailers also need to be wary of too much responsibility being heaped on them as they edge closer to becoming educators themselves. As Tatum says: “We want to be seen as a place to come and learn, but we’re not trying to replace the education system. It’s important that people leave school being able to read and add up – that’s not the responsibility of employers.”

Tatum adds there is also a concern that, if progress is not made on reducing some of the bureaucracy surrounding accredited qualifications, more work will be created for retailers. “Some of the procedures are very old-fashioned and with large organisations that becomes prohibitive,” she says, citing the example of companies being required to store apprenticeship paperwork for six years. For an organisation the size of Tesco, this means having to purchase extra storage space.

It is also important to remember that school leavers are not the only talent stream available to retailers. There is a danger that once the changes come into place, retailers will focus too heavily on 16- to 18-year-olds at the expense of other age groups.

Tatum says: “It will be key not to forget the rest of the population and make sure we don’t inadvertently ignore any other working-age group.”

2013 might seem like a world away, but the industry will have to act now if it wants to bring in the changes that will ultimately help it secure the next generation of retailers.