By Ralph La Fontaine, Head of Careers and Learning, BRC Learning. Email: Ralph.lafontaine@brc.org.uk

When the apprenticeship levy was announced at the 2015 budget it received a cautious welcome from the retail industry. Everyone recognised the critical importance of attracting, developing and retaining the future retail workforce, and it was clear that employers needed to invest more and play a bigger role in ensuring the training opportunities on offer met their business needs. But the concern was always about how a one size fits all system could meet the real commercial learning and development needs of retailers especially at a time when the retail industry is going through a period of rapid transformation. And three years on, with unspent levy funds due to expire in April, there is little sign that the apprenticeship levy system is about to create the transformative changes to vocational learning in retail everyone wants to see.

The challenges of getting value from the levy and making apprenticeships work are familiar for many businesses but are often more acute for retailers. Retail employees place a very high value on flexibility with 54 per cent employed on a part time basis, and yet apprenticeship programmes are very hard to operate for part time employees. And whilst retailers have found workarounds for the 20 per cent off-the-job requirement it adds a real cost to the business over and above the levy, and creates major operational headaches with front line roles where shift working is common. In addition, many retailers also have operations across the devolved nations where different rules on apprenticeships apply. And of course, the need for the commercial training at point of need still exists, and needs to be funded on top of the levy. Add to this the complex apprenticeship funding and compliance system and it’s hardly surprising that take up has been slow, with apprenticeship starts falling and just 27 per cent of retailers having more than one per cent of their workforce made up of apprentices (BRC, Workforce Survey, August 2018).

This is not to say that retailers don’t recognise the need to offer more development and career progression opportunities. The BRC Better Jobs report predicts the industry will have 900,000 fewer employees by 2025 but with the remaining jobs required to be more highly skilled and productive. This major transformation of the workforce is a big challenge but also presents an opportunity to tell a story that is often unheard about the new emerging job roles and the exciting career opportunities available within the retail industry. To help try and address this Rethink Retail is an industry led initiative being launched in April to showcase the changing face of retail jobs and careers.

To make apprenticeships work, government, industry and training providers all need to play their part. The government needs to allow greater flexibility to employers, particularly to order to open up apprenticeship opportunities to part time employees or those working in front line commercial roles. Training providers need to design innovative apprenticeship programmes that address the real needs of retailers rather than plug and play existing courses. And retailers themselves need to be willing to invest the time and effort needed to structure their learning and development offers to support apprenticeships and offer the career progression opportunities needed for the future retail workforce.

For more information about BRC apprenticeships, tailored for the retail industry, click here.