team meeting

As business leaders, growing apprenticeships is a real solution to future-proofing our talent pool

There is growing concern about how Brexit could impact retailers’ ability to attract talent. With around 6% of the retail workforce made up by EU citizens, coupled with some of the lowest unemployment levels this country has ever seen, the retail sector could be facing a very real skills challenge.

The retail sector provides a critical entry point for a variety of roles, as well as a learning ground for core skills that are required across all sectors. But with the high street facing its own challenges, a hit to attracting the right skillset could be a further blow to retail’s ability to maintain thriving business.

Whilst the threat of Brexit poses uncertainty, there is one tangible opportunity to mitigate the risk to talent: apprentices. As business leaders, growing apprenticeships is a real solution to future-proofing our talent pool. It is estimated that the grocery sector (which is worth over 50% of all retail sales[3]) needs approximately 100,000 apprentices by 2022[4], and the opportunity that all businesses have is to make use of the government apprenticeship levy. Every business can take advantage of support from the government to help set up a scheme. For those businesses contributing to the levy, proactively using those funds is an investment in your people that will otherwise go to waste. For smaller retailers, the government offers significant support towards setting up apprenticeships – contributing 90% of the training costs and additional grants for those employing young workers under the age of 19.[5]

Read more: Challenger brands must act now to avoid a talent shortage

It’s time for us business leaders to take advantage of the up and coming talent on our doorstep. Whilst the apprenticeship levy scheme launched to some criticism, in reality it is helping invest in Britain’s school-leavers to help them become workplace ready. There are some misconceptions that apprentices don’t want to do much work, or that they’re there to do the jobs others don’t want. This just isn’t the case.

We have partnered with Northampton College and created a scheme in which we currently hire 10-12 apprentices a year, giving them a qualification of NVQ Level 3 in either Business Administration or IT Infrastructure. The IT apprentices work on the business’ service desk, while the business admin apprentices rotate around 12 different teams including corporate admin, customer service administration and billing.

Contrary to the above misconceptions, not only do we find that those in the scheme are grateful for the opportunity to learn a range of skills, but it also increases loyalty – many of our apprentices choose to stay on and further their career once their qualification is complete. But it does require a commitment from inside the business. Apprentices bring a different perspective to the workplace and can help seasoned business leaders to understand the wants and needs of different generations. In return, mentor schemes and team leader training are needed to ensure the teams understand the differences between working with an apprentice and a non-apprentice employee. Apprentices are there to develop themselves as much as they are there to learn and should be supported appropriately. As the scheme provides a valuable wealth of talent, we’ve found this investment to be well worth its while.

Retailers can reap these same rewards. With increasing incentives for investing in 16-18 year olds, retailers, food manufacturers and suppliers alike have the opportunity to stock their talent supply chains in light of a shifting workforce landscape. Whilst uncertainties still remain around Brexit, don’t let a shortage of talent be one of them.

Nikki Flanders is COO of Opus Energy