There was a buzz rushing through the Centre Point building in London last month as retailers across the breadth of the industry gathered to celebrate the launch of the National Skills Academy (NSA). The idea to develop a network of skills shops throughout the UK to act as walk-in learning centres has been brewing for the past four years, and the opening of the first 18 shops is just the beginning.

"We're at the start of a long journey," Skillsmart Retail chief executive Anne Seaman told retailers attending the launch. "Over the next three to five years, we hope to build a network of more than 70 skills shops across the UK. Retailers in the UK will be renowned for world-class service and people working in retail will be proud of their jobs."

Her comments reflect the harsh reality that there is a perception from those outside the industry that shop work is for people lacking academic abilities. Jemima Bird, marketing director at Musgrave Retail Partners, is confident that the NSA will shatter such illusions. "Retail used to be an average career that you went into when you didn't get a qualification out of university or college, but this isn't the case any more," she says. "The industry is a lot bigger than it is given credit for, and by going through the NSA, you are raising the profile of the millions who work in retail."

And this certainly isn't just an opportunity for the big boys to cash in. "All the training packages have been designed by retailers and particularly with independent retailers in mind," Skillsmart Retail chairman Martin Beaumont tells Convenience Store. "Larger retailers such as Sainsbury's will use the skill shops in a different way - ensuring that their internal training schemes are consistent with the NSA's. But the skills shops themselves are principally for

c-stores to train their staff."

Bird agrees that the skills shops will be very much c-store orientated. "Major multiples have such good schemes in place in terms of picking up graduates, but retail is made up of everyman," she says. "With the NSA we can get the right people with the right skills. Most people in retail work part-time and this opportunity allows everyone to get skilled in retail. That means that c-stores can get the best employees out there."

Tailor-made training

Nisa retailer Kishor Patel is also confident that the skills shops will be hugely beneficial for c-stores. "Larger retailers already have in-house programmes and they have a different route to funding and training," he says. "The skills shops will mainly be for small and medium-sized retailers. It'll be the perfect solution for independents to provide employees with everything from basic training to apprenticeships and NVQs."

Even the one-shop retailer will have the opportunity to get first-class training, says Musgrave's Bird. "It's the most important milestone in retail in the past decade. We're trying to explain to our retailers what Skillsmart can do for them as they probably don't know that the NSA is available."

Kishor is also eager to point out the importance of letting as many retailers as possible know about the NSA. "Awareness is now key to taking the project forward," he says. "Retailers need to know what the NSA can deliver in terms of skills. Making sure everyone fully understands what the skills shops are and how they operate is vital."

Dawn Maughan, operations manager at the Newcastle Skills Shop, is looking forward to working with c-store retailers in her area. "C-store retailers will be welcome to simply walk into the skills shops and meet the people in training. We will also encourage trainees to go and see stores before they start on a set career path to make sure that it is the right choice for them."

The new training system will be worlds apart from the methods c-stores have used in the past. Skills minister Lord Young claims that until now it has been pretty tough to train staff consistently. "Many employers are unclear on how to develop their staff and they either do ad hoc training, or nothing at all," he claims. But, thanks to the NSA, this group will diminish, he adds.

Kishor also notes that training people properly has historically proved tricky. "There has been so much red tape and a number of different training providers, but it was very patchy and there was no consistency," he claims. "The skills shops will offer a range of qualifications under one roof."

He believes the skills shops will not only lead to better training within the sector, but also a huge shift in how the retail industry is perceived. "Now people will look at c-store retailing in much more detail. The training will explore product knowledge, IT, marketing, personal development, customer behaviour and merchandising. The structure will be consistent across the UK and we'll be providing grade A customer service."
One-stop shop
Retail skills shops are one-stop, walk-in hubs based on high streets and in shopping centres, operated by trained staff who will offer free advice and suggest courses and learning opportunities.



Core services:


l Masterclasses

l Unitised learning

l NVQ and Apprenticeships

l Pre-employment training

l Business development programmes for independent retailers

l Management and leadership programmes

l Customer service and selling skills programmes

l Merchandising and replenishment programmes

l Access to fundable programmes



There are 18 retail skills

shops in the UK:



North East

Newcastle Skills Shop

Yorkshire & Humber

The Source

(Meadowhall, Sheffield)

Leeds Retail Skills Academy

North West

Preston Retail Skills Shop

UK Career Centre, Manchester

Cheshire Oaks Retail Academy

West Midlands

Greater Birmingham Retail

Skills Shop (Solihull)

East Midlands

Derby Retail Skills Shop

Retail Skills Centre, Leicester

East of England

King's Lynn Retail Skills Shop

London

Hawk Retail Academy, London

Heathrow Retail Academy

Wembley Skills Shop

South East

The Learning Shop, Bluewater (Kent)

Retail Links, Hampshire Skills Shop (Basingstoke)

The Lakeside Training Centre (Thurrock and Basildon)

Skillscentre: MK (Milton Keynes)

South West

Devon Retail Skills

For more information, go to www.nsaforretail.com, email contactus@nsafor retail.com, or phone 020 7462 5089.

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