From Skills Shops to apprenticeships, there’s a training format out there to suit your needs, as Rich Airey discovers

Training your staff is vital, but deciding on the best way to do it can seem tricky and time- consuming. With a busy store to run and often only a small team to cover the hours, you might be under the impression that there simply aren’t enough hours in the day to tackle the job.

However, forward-thinking independent retailers are already reaping the benefits of increased staff training, and there are initiatives out there to help you find the right courses and schemes for your employees and business set-up. Tap into these and you’ll soon be enjoying the benefits of a better-skilled workforce.

At the forefront of the promotion of training for the retail sector is Skillsmart Retail. Its chief executive, Anne Seaman, believes the problem many independent retailers face is that they’re often unsure of the best training to offer their staff and where to go to source it.

She recommends the government’s recently established Train to Gain service as an ideal entry route for
independent retailers. The initiative puts retailers in touch with skills brokers in their locality who are able to carry out an analysis of all their training requirements. This takes the pressure off retailers having to trawl through long lists of learning providers and courses.

“Train to Gain can prove extremely useful for the independent sector,” says Seaman. “It’s aimed at the hard-to-reach and really is the key for smaller businesses accessing the right training for themselves and their employees.”

Seaman says that Skillsmart Retail is carrying out a great deal of work to ensure the service matches retailers’ expectations. “We’re doing a lot of work with the brokers involved to make sure they understand retail,” she explains. “There’s not much point in retailers accessing brokers whose experience is in construction
training, for example. Once retailers have taken the first step and gained access to a broker through Train to Gain, they will be signposted to a variety of options, including NVQ qualifications and any possible funding that may be available.”

Seaman believes that independent retailers should look at providing staff with short, bite-sized courses, as a means of increasing the overall skills of their workforce. Skillsmart’s involvement in the development of a National Skills Academy, to act as a one-stop shop for retailers in their own locality, is another way in which access to this kind of training is expected to improve.

A network of ‘Skills Shops’ is being set up across the country. 

They will be tailored to suit local needs and will offer advice on training and coaching, careers and employment, the setting up of retail placements, opportunities for staff to train in ‘live’ retail environments and details of local partnerships to support vocational courses in schools and colleges.

Skillsmart Retail is keen to hear retailers’ views on the setting up of the network and from those
interested in becoming involved. Seaman explains: “The aim is that every retailer will have access to a Skills Shop in their area. They’re a great solution for smaller retailers and will provide access to training within a manageable distance for retailers to travel.”

The Skills Shops will form anything from an information desk on a high street to a more personal set-up where information providers visit retailers in their stores.

A format of training which Seaman believes is on the rise once more is apprenticeships. And she’s adamant that the approach is not just for the big players in the retail sector, but of significant benefit to even the
smallest of retailers.

“Apprenticeships really can be invaluable,” she explains. “From my experience as a retailer they’re extremely beneficial. There’s a big push on apprenticeships by the government at the moment. They did become much maligned, but Gordon Brown, first as chancellor and now as prime minister, has focused much more on the positive benefits of vocational training.”

Seaman is keen to see independent retailers step forward and open their businesses to a specially designed retail apprenticeship. “There’s more or less an immediate return for retailers as they have an extra pair of hands in the store,” she explains. “All the training is funded and retailers simply have to release the apprentice to attend a college for a set number of hours each week. Apprenticeships have become even more attractive recently, because there’s funding available for older employees. This has opened up the programme to existing staff and is giving retailers the chance to improve and develop the skills of their older, existing employees.”

Once a retailer has embarked on a dedicated programme of training, it’s important they keep track of each employee’s skills. Seaman believes that introducing an initiative such as Retail Passport, a complete electronic record of an employee’s training, will show employees they are valued.

Unlike a standard CV, the Retail Passport is a verified record of both educational and vocational skills and qualifications, and comes in the form of a photocard and online profile. Although the Passport is owned by the individual, employees will benefit from access to an effective method of maintaining staff training records, because the Passport allows retailers to search for any training gaps in core as well as specific retail skills. The scheme therefore encourages staff development and avoids unnecessary retraining costs.

“The Retail Passport can be extremely useful for independent retailers” says Seaman. “It can also be beneficial for employees as they develop through their careers. 

Retailers can see qualifications employees have gained with other retailers; for example, if someone has achieved an NVQ with Londis and is now transferring to Spar.”

Another scheme proving popular for a number of c-store retailers and their employees is Retail Plus. Launched at the beginning of 2007, the initiative was developed by Skillsmart Retail and national awarding body NCFE, and enables retailers to partner up with a nearby college or training provider. A local retail assessor will then visit the store and discuss areas for development with the retailer and staff. The assessor can organise a work-based programme on subjects from news and magazine management to practical food safety. NVQs in customer service, team-leading, retail skills and distribution, warehouse and storage are also available. A workbook approach to the training allows employees to work flexibly at home and at work, without the need to attend long courses away from the store. Depending on the number of employees, the benefits of Retail Plus can be accessed from about £300 per year per store.

A forthcoming development, which is likely to have huge potential benefits for retailers, is the launch of the Retail Diploma. Described as the largest shake-up in education since the introduction of GCSEs and A levels, the retail
qualification - entitled ‘Retail and its Supply Chain’ - will be available to 14- to 19-year-olds. Retailers will not only see the benefits of a greater-skilled future employee base to select from, but can also play a major role in providing work placement opportunities for students.

Seaman explains: “In terms of what independents will see, we’re in the early stages. The Retail Diploma will be piloted in 2010 and rolled out by 2013. It will start to become significant for independent retailers a bit further down the line, when they’re likely to be approached by more young people looking for work placements. These placements will be for a minimum of 10 days, but we’re pushing for this to be extended to 20 days. We’ll be looking to co-ordinate each placement through the Skills Shops. I believe the Retail Diploma will really put the retail sector on the map for young people.”

Retailer view

Nisa retailer and Skillsmart Retail board member Kishor Patel is a strong believer in the importance of training. He estimates he’s sent 70 staff on courses through the Retail Plus initiative and is being rewarded with a greater-skilled team, better staff retention and a boost to his bottom line.

“Through Retail Plus we offer our staff on-site training which is delivered through the local college. They can provide a wide range of on-site courses including NVQs, skills certificates in beers, wines and sprits, National Lottery skills and food hygiene.

“It’s ideal because the assessors come to the store and work with my employees. Disruption is kept to a minimum because staff don’t have to leave the store. The results make it extremely worthwhile. I’ve been able to promote a number of my staff to positions such as team leaders and duty managers after they’ve completed certain courses or Level two and three NVQs. These are the key positions where we require really good staff retention and we’ve definitely seen the benefits.

“Retail Plus has been the main way in which we’ve offered training in the past year. We’re also looking at a number of other methods of training, including apprenticeships and online programmes. Independent retailers shouldn’t be afraid of offering the same as the supermarkets in terms of training.

“The online training we’re looking to launch fully very soon is provided by Upskill People. Its clients include McDonald’s, One-Stop and Barclays, and the programme can cover inductions, customer service and IT skills. Current employees can train on programmes such as Word and Excel and it also means we can carry out some basic aspects of a new employee’s induction before their first day in the store.”

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