Following in the footsteps of Alan Sugar, a growing number of retailers are embracing apprenticeships. Sarah Britton speaks to them about how the scheme is improving their businesses
Lord Sugar may have just chosen his apprentice, but the story doesn’t end there. Retailers across the UK are reaping the benefits of apprenticeships and so could you.
“The number of retail apprenticeships achieved in the UK has significantly increased over recent years, and with the scheme’s growing popularity among government, young people and career advisors, this trend is set to continue,” says Skillsmart Retail chief executive Anne Seaman. “Through the programme convenience store retailers will gain skilled and knowledgeable staff, who offer a better service.”
Kishor Patel, who owns seven Nisa stores across Bedfordshire, was one of the first convenience retailers to take advantage of the apprenticeship opportunity. He put two existing members of staff Sarah and Nikki on apprenticeships, and they completed the qualification in 18 months. “When it comes to dealing with queries both girls are now much more confident,” he says.
Kishor’s apprentice Sarah: “I thought it would be good for me to do an apprenticeship it looks good on your CV. It’s done during work hours so I’m not having to do extra work on top of my job. I knew some of it already, but it jogs your memory. Now I want to work my way up. If I have more qualifications then I’ll be taken more seriously.”
Paul Fisher, who runs Fisher’s of Gerrard’s Cross in Buckinghamshire, has also witnessed a positive change in his workforce since involving them in apprenticeships. He initially took on school-leaver Kayleigh as an apprentice and, having seen how effective the programme is, he enrolled 12 of his existing staff. “The apprenticeships give staff confidence and help them to express themselves better,” he says. “The way they handle criticism will also improve as they continue the programme. My employees are all so passionate about what they do and sometimes they take it personally if a customer criticises a product even if it’s not their fault. But with the apprenticeship they are given the tools to be able to deal with the situation.”
And it isn’t just staff who benefit from apprenticeships. “It costs us in hours, but what we get back in terms of customer service and increased commitment makes it worthwhile,” says Paul. “Staff learn how to be consistent. Sometimes, you have an amazing day where an employee is on fire, and you think ‘Why can’t they do that every day?’ The apprenticeship teaches them that they can.”
Paul’s apprentice Kayleigh: “I’ve been here since February. I was at sixth form when I heard about the apprenticeship and decided to go for it. I’ve been working in different sections of the store, including chilled and fruit & veg. I didn’t know anything to start with, but now I can tell customers all about the products. I love it.”
Kishor has also seen his business flourish as a result of the scheme. “The girls who have their apprenticeships are now taking on more responsibilities. It has helped them to take an interest in displaying stock and understanding wastage and margin analysis,” he says. “The big thing that apprenticeships help with is retention. They make staff realise that there is a career in retailing.”
The fact that apprenticeships encourage people to view convenience retail as a long-term profession is what makes them so valuable, according to the Association of Convenience Stores (ACS). “If you want to achieve one thing in retail, it’s for people to choose it as a career,” says public affairs director Shane Brennan. “Apprenticeships allow retailers to turn people who work in retail into people who have a career in retail.”
Rav Garcha, who owns four stores in the Midlands, got involved after hearing the ACS speak about them. “The ACS did a roadshow in Birmingham called Going Local,” he explains. “It was held at Solihull College where Skillsmart Retail is located, and they did a presentation on apprenticeships.”
Following this, Rav signed up all his staff to the scheme and has been thrilled with the results. “It’s been four months since my staff started the scheme. I used to think staff might leave after training, but it has actually helped me to secure their loyalty as it shows that I am giving them something back and helps to boost their satisfaction.” He claims that apprenticeships enable staff to see the bigger picture, which encourages them to take more of an interest in the store. “We’re getting staff to buy into the business by involving them,” he points out.
Paul’s apprentice Dan: “I’ve been here three-and-a-half years and I’m taking an apprenticeship. You need more than just experience these days you need qualifications. When customers come to Fisher’s they think customer service. It’s face-to-face here, it’s personal, and you need to be trained to be good.”
Embracing the programme has also helped the retailers themselves to develop. “Forget about the staff I’ve learnt a lot through it myself!” grins Rav. “Everything I was doing before was all stick-based, now it’s carrot-based! Instead of every sentence ending in ‘If you don’t do this, then you’re going to lose your job’, the focus has shifted to making sure staff are happy and thinking of the store as their own business. The results are brilliant.”
Kishor has also been through a period of self-reflection. “The apprenticeship has made me change as well as the staff. I can’t expect staff to do the course if I don’t appreciate it and get the best out of them.” He has built on their new-found knowledge by encouraging a culture of continual development. “It’s great to have qualifications, but if you don’t carry on embracing the strategy in your business it won’t work.”
The apprenticeship programme has been such a success that Kishor is keen to get more of his staff on board, and claims that all retailers can benefit from the scheme. “I would certainly recommend apprenticeships. If you don’t want to enrol all your staff at once, you can put employees on one at a time and then, if you’re comfortable with it, you can build up the numbers. It will definitely add value to the business.”
Anne Seaman, chief executive of Skillsmart Retail, tells you everything you need to know about apprenticeships
What is an apprenticeship? It is an excellent way for an employee to earn while they learn. The programme comprises four qualifications covering competency, technical knowledge, literacy and numeracy. Unlike an NVQ, which only gives a ‘competence-based’ qualification, an apprenticeship produces a more rounded person who will have a breadth of knowledge. Apprenticeships also include literacy and numeracy, which are not only useful in the workplace but in everyday life.
How long does it take to achieve an apprenticeship? There is no fixed timescale as it depends on the learner, the retailer and the delivery model. In general, though, a Level 2 apprenticeship in retail (equivalent to GCSEs in level) is likely to take 9-15 months and a Level 3 (equivalent to A Level in level) about 12-18 months.
How much would it cost a retailer to run an apprenticeship programme? Running an apprenticeship programme, either for new or existing employees, should not cost retailers much more than the wage they pay the apprentice and covering any time they spend training off the shop floor. Government funding, dependent upon the age of the learner, may be available through the Skills Funding Agency (www.skillsfundingagency.bis.gov.uk) and National Apprenticeship Service (www.apprenticeships.org.uk).
How much time will each employee undergoing an apprenticeship have to spend away from the shop floor? The programme specifies that the learner must spend time away from the immediate pressures of their job. This time is primarily used for the delivery and achievement of the knowledge and functional skills qualifications. For Level 2 there is a minimum of 103 hours delivered off the job and for Level 3 a minimum of 101 hours a year of the programme, which is on average two hours a week.
What are the benefits to both staff and retailer of putting an existing staff member on an apprenticeship scheme? Offering apprenticeships to existing staff is a great way to show that, as an employer, you value them and their contribution to the business. Investing in qualifying staff also helps improve retention, thereby reducing recruitment costs. Through the programme the business will also gain recognition for its skilled and knowledgeable staff.
How can a retailer benefit from taking on an apprentice who isn’t an existing staff member? Apprenticeships are a great way to attract ambitious employees who want to learn and progress to be the best they can be. Through the programme they will learn the skills and acquire the knowledge required to do their job effectively and efficiently from the start.
How can retailers get involved in apprenticeships? They should contact their local retail skills shop, led by the National Skills Academy for Retail. These one-stop, walk-in hubs are operated by trained staff who offer free advice. To find your nearest, visit www.nsaforretail.com. Alternatively, for information on Retail Apprenticeships visit: www.skillsmartretail.com.