More and more retailers recognise the importance of training but is it time for them to embrace qualifications too?

Historically, retail is an industry that’s been short on the tools to gauge and recognise the skills and abilities of the people it employs.

“You have to have a qualification to be a doctor, you have to have a qualification to be a forklift driver, but you don’t need anything for retail. What employers look for are people with the right attributes and ability, and the skills training comes later,” says Beverley Paddey, head of workforce development at Skillsmart Retail.
The government is determined to change attitudes to vocational training and qualifications across all industries. And retail is no exception.

The White Paper of a new National Employer Training Programme offers the prospect of free flexible training for vocational qualifications equivalent to five GCSEs, and pilots to support vocational training at technician, craft and associate professional level skills equivalent to two A Levels.

There are a large number of qualifications, including NVQ, applicable to retail, and the major multiples have already taken steps to ensure their staff training can result in a transferable qualification. Tesco’s own in-house training has been mapped to NVQ standards and staff are also offered retail apprenticeships through which they can earn an NVQ in retail while developing other skills such as English and maths.

The retailer benefits by improving the competencies of its overall workforce while the employee is rewarded with a portable recognised qualification.

Without the luxury of a large human resources department, facilitating training and helping staff obtain qualifications is not so easy. Fortunately, there are initiatives that are broadening access to training and qualifications for smaller retailers.

The York-based Retail Academy offers courses through which independent retailers can study for sector-specific qualifications which can lead to NVQs. Meanwhile, The Learning and Skills Council (LSC) and Skillsmart Retail have just completed a two-year training pilot scheme for small retailers.

Around 350 companies and 1,000 employees were involved. Almost 30% of the participants were employed part-time and more than 40% had only very basic levels of qualifications, so the aim was to deliver an NVQ which employees could undertake in manageable portions and which fitted in with the requirements of the employer.

Initial feedback suggests it was very successful, says Sam Setchell, of the Learning and Skills Council, “particularly in targeting learners who wouldn't generally have had the opportunity to take up training. And because they were able to learn in bite-size chunks, participants were less intimidated. Even though there was no pressure to complete the full NVQ, most did”.
One of the most poignant findings from the pilot was that for many this would be their first qualification. Says Paddey: “For some people in their 30s and 40s there was a perception when they attended school that they did not need qualifications. Nowadays, it’s a different story.”

The concept of a job for life has been replaced by a more fluid and flexible approach to work. So even older workers could find they need a qualification in the future if they are to remain employable - something which is particularly pertinent amid talk of the need to work past retirement.

Enabling staff to train within their trade and obtain qualifications can also encourage them to explore other educational avenues. Trade union USDAW’s workplace learning initiative last year helped 100,000 workers access education at work.

Now 172 MPs have signed an early day motion in support of USDAW’s campaign to give their members a legal right to elect Learning Committees in their workplaces. If passed, it could result in a change in the law which would compel employers to work with elected union learning reps in the same way in which they are obliged to work with health and safety reps.
According to James Rees, education and training officer at USDAW, many employers are happy to set up learning committees and to co-operate with the union. And because the union’s learning representatives would have legal rights to perform their duties, it makes sense for both parties to work together.

“This makes this proposed legislation a win-win piece of legislation. Employers tell us that members who return to some form of learning become more confident and flexible in their approach, and it helps with internal promotion as well,” he says.

Rees points out that the legislation would apply only to a situation where there was a recognised union, so small businesses would tend not be affected by the legislation. “However, staff and employer would miss out on the benefits,” he says.

In partnership with the Learning and Skills Council, Skillsmart Retail is setting up Skills Shops in shopping centres across the country, which offer advice on the training resources available.

One group of market traders in Birkenhead, Merseyside set up their own Learning Shop with the support of Skillsmart Retail, offering qualifications in such areas as basic food hygiene as well as training in IT and accountancy. Not only is the service available to the 300 stall holders themselves, it’s also open to the wider community.

An academically and vocationally qualified workforce may be the holy grail of the government’s educational ambitions for the nation but for many small businesses it is training and not the final thumbs-up that’s important.

While Paddey would encourage retailers to opt for qualifications for themselves and their staff, she’s acknowledges their needs are very different from those of the bigger businesses. “They’re not looking to buy qualifications, they are looking for business solutions - how to make their business more profitable,” she says.
However, with initiatives such as the new National Employer Training Programme it’s clear government is keen to raise the profile of qualifications across all sectors. Some retailers may fear transferable qualifications will make it easier for staff to leave and find alternative jobs, but it’s worth remembering the stance taken by the major multiples.

“For the larger retailer [training and qualifications] are basically tools for recruitment and retention,” points out Paddey. Given that some can face turnover of as much as 120%, the fact they are still keen to see their staff qualified is a measure of the long term benefits of enabling staff to work for that special piece of paper.”