COMMENT: We must tackle apprenticeship stereotypes in retail

We must encourage people to look beyond the outdated idea that retail is a first job rather than a career, writes Robert Halfon MP, a former minister of skills, apprenticeships and careers. On the flipside, retailers need to see reform from the government if the apprenticeship scheme is to meet its full potential.

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COMMENT: We must tackle apprenticeships stereotypes in retail
Robert Halfon MP pens an exclusive oped for Retail Gazette as part of National Apprenticeship Week.

I am delighted that the theme for National Apprenticeship Week this year is “Look Beyond”.

Indeed, in the words of my current parliamentary apprentice Dan Swords, “we must stop the apprenticeships snobbery”. Moreover, we must encourage people to look beyond the outdated idea that retail is a first job rather than a career.

In my first speech in the House of Commons I argued that we needed to change the way we view apprenticeships so that they are held in the same regard as going to university. I strongly believe that we must transform the nature of vocational training and apprenticeships and show that a career in retail can offer well paid, high value work if we are to equip young people with the skills they need to climb the ladder of opportunity.

“A career in retail can offer well paid, high value work if we are to equip young people with the skills they need”

As we look beyond traditional routes of education and training, it is a fitting week to point out that retail is also in the midst of a transformation and our high streets need to be re-imagined beyond retail. There are thousands of people doing jobs that didn’t exist in the industry 10 years ago and retailers are changing how they run their stores to include more experience-based offerings. Through the rise of technology and artificial intelligence, we are seeing many more opportunities for people with technical skills to build their careers in retail.

So, as the industry continues through a period of significant change, it is fantastic to see retailers using apprenticeships as an important pathway to futureproof their business. There are plenty of dynamic and diverse apprenticeship programmes on offer in retail which include digital marketing, engineering, finance and software development. I encourage all young people to really look at the many options the industry has to offer.

While an apprenticeship in retail provides a way to climb the ladder of opportunity, the changing nature of the industry and the evolution of jobs is also playing a key role in addressing the skills gap facing our nation. Retail is very much part of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, from touch screens in aisles to customer service bots and simulation modelling across the supply chain. It is an exciting time to be part of the industry as retail creates more opportunities for people from all communities, promoting social mobility across all parts of the country.

“Retailers need to see reform from the government in the upcoming Budget if the apprenticeship scheme is to meet its full potential”

As the industry continues to play this important role in society, it is equally important to recognise that challenges remain. Retailers need to see reform from the government in the upcoming Budget if the apprenticeship scheme is to meet its full potential – creating a workforce fit for the future. Recent figures indicate apprenticeship-starts are falling and retailers have identified the inflexibility in funding rules as a key barrier to take-up of the scheme.

Currently, there are overly restrictive limitations on what Apprenticeship Levy funds can be spent on, meaning retailers are unable to fully engage with the policy and make the most of apprenticeships. Support to professionalise the industry and promote careers in retail must be part of our educational standards not least as retail is the largest private sector employer in the UK.

As part of National Apprenticeship Week 2020, I am delighted to be sponsoring an event in Parliament on behalf of the British Retail Consortium. I will be welcoming apprentices currently working for retailers across the UK including Sainsbury’s, John Lewis, Joules, and The Company Shop. This is a fantastic opportunity for apprentices to meet with politicians to demonstrate the value of a career in retail.

Government, retailers, and training providers, all have a part to play in building the success of apprenticeships and I am determined to do just that. During National Apprenticeship Week 2020, we should all take some time to think about how we contribute to making that happen.

Robert Halfon MP was the former Minister of State for Higher Education, Skills, Apprenticeships and Careers in the Department of Education 2016 – 2017 and Chair of the Education Select Committee.

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