Apprenticeships are shedding their outdated image thanks to renewed government focus and support from big-name retailers. Katie Kilgallen finds out why this is good news for retail

The old-fashioned artisan image of apprenticeships is fading fast. Modern-day versions are now being lauded as good for business, good for the economy and good for people, and the Government is backing them as a career route of choice for young people. Retailers are getting on board too, heralding the scheme as part of the solution to a diminishing talent pool and skills gap in the industry.

And now is the perfect time for people to get involved. On November 16 last year, the Prime Minister announced more than£1 billion in Government funding to increase overall places from 250,000 at present to more than 400,000 by 2010/2011. There will also be a guaranteed place for every young person who wants one by 2013 and a UCAS-style matching service to bring prospective apprentices and businesses together.

Speaking at the Raising Commitment to Apprenticeships in the Retail Sector event in London last November, Tesco chief executive Sir Terry Leahy warned that the available talent pool in retail was diminishing and put forward the business case for supporting apprenticeships. “The reason I support apprenticeships is because they are good for our business and the bottom line. We’re not doing it because it makes us feel good, we’re doing it because it makes us a more successful and profitable company,” he said.

And, last week, Asda revealed its intention to launch its own apprenticeship scheme later this month as part of Apprenticeship Week, which runs from February 25 to February 29. The supermarket chain said it wanted to try to beat the high turnover associated with retail and attract staff from a wider talent pool.

In response to the new Government targets, Skillsmart Retail has set its own goals specifically for the retail industry. Beverly Paddey, head of standards and qualifications at Skillsmart Retail, says: “The total number of apprenticeships stands at 8,167 for 2007/2008 (for England) and we want to almost double that to 15,000 by 2012/2013.”

So what place can modern apprenticeships have in the dot.com age and in a fast-paced industry like retail?

Apprenticeships remain very much on-the-job training programmes, but now also have a focus on achieving minimum standards in numeracy and literacy, as well as generic IT and communications skills. The components include an NVQ (vocational training), key skills (literacy and numeracy) and a technical certificate (theory). They have been designed to offer a platform for participants to move up the ladder in their career of choice, or onto further education. They are also open to anyone and there are no minimum academic entry requirements.

There are two programme levels – apprenticeships and advanced apprenticeships. An apprenticeship in retail skills is equivalent to five A-C GCSEs and an advanced apprenticeship in retail is equivalent to two A-levels.

The basic outline of any apprenticeship is set by the Government, but the content is employer-led and they have been designed to meet employers’ needs.

There will also be opportunities to shape content as the qualification and industry develops and matures. Paddey says: “The employer has the opportunity to say: ‘This doesn’t quite meet my needs, we need to change it’.” To aid this process, Skillsmart Retail runs standing committees where retailers come together to steer content and discuss issues.

With the express backing of its chief executive, Tesco has made apprenticeships a key part of its training and development offer. The company gets its own in-house training formally recognised and accredited as part of the apprenticeships.

According to the supermarket giant, staff on apprenticeship schemes often have an edge over others. They are multi-skilled, rather than having a narrow one-department focus and have developed clear communication skills, making them better able to interact with customers and colleagues alike.

Tesco has also credited apprenticeships with improving retention. The extra responsibility that apprentices take on can make them feel more valued and therefore easier to retain in the long term. The grocer has retained 376 of the 443 apprentices who started the programme in 2005. This represents 85 per cent retention against a company average of 70 per cent for non-apprentices in the 16- to 24-year-old age group. By the end of 2008, 1,000 Tesco employees will have achieved an apprenticeship.

Leahy said: “Building a loyal team is the most valuable asset a retailer can have. They are key to success in a retail business, where your reputation is dependant on thousands of staff.”

Simply offering apprenticeships can turn a retailer into more of an employer of choice and give them access to a wider talent pool. They help highlight career progression paths to potential and existing employees. Many apprentices are in supervisory roles by the time they finish their courses.

For retailers running apprenticeships, flexibility is seen as crucial to their success. Paddey says: “Different employers will work with apprenticeships in different ways. Large companies with well-structured training and HR departments will get in-house training accredited, while smaller companies that don’t have the experience would generally use third-party providers. It isn’t a one-size fits all.”

The Government funds the full cost of apprenticeships for 16- to 19-year-olds and 50 per cent of the cost for those over 19. However, receiving Government funding also means there will be a certain amount of bureaucracy to deal with. Paddey says: “The money in practice just pays for additional monitoring and delivery, rather than the training itself.”

However, anecdotally at least, any extra effort is viewed as well worth it. Many employers say they see an increase in productivity from their apprentices, because the boost to confidence and self-esteem the courses provide leads to an immediate uplift in motivation and enthusiasm.

Such programmes can only help the industry if they are a win-win for both individual staff and businesses alike. As Leahy said: “I’m a huge fan of apprenticeships because I’ve seen what they can do for individuals and I’ve seen what they can do for my business.”

Heathrow Retail Academy: case study

The Retail Academy at Heathrow has a unique approach to providing apprenticeships. Acting as an external training provider, it delivers apprenticeships to more than 90 retail employees on an exclusively one-to-one basis.

All training is delivered in the workplace by a vocational coach. Retailers must assign a mentor, who will be a key contact for the apprentice and coach. Retail visits take place every two weeks and three-way reviews with mentors every two visits. Vocational coaches will never have more than 30 apprentices on their books and only work for two to three retailers, so they get to know the individual and the business.

The achievement rate was 71 per cent for 2005/2006, compared with 51 per cent the previous year. Academy manager Karima Sakhi says the success has been down to making an effort to meet the demands of the employers, as well as apprentices. “Providers need to be responsive to employers,” she says. “We’ve matched it up very well with what they are trying to achieve in stores.”