Co-op apprentices

Source: Co-op

The Co-op has kick-started the fund with a £500,000 pledge

The Co-op is looking to fill the “opportunity gap” with a nationwide apprenticeship initiative designed to enhance employment possibilities for young people from underrepresented communities.

The convenience retailer will pledge £500,000 to kick-start a target fund of £15m to support the creation of thousands of new apprenticeship opportunities for groups and individuals most disadvantaged due to systemic prejudice or economic deprivation.

It is now calling on other large employers across England to step in and support the fund, by channelling unspent money from their apprenticeship levy to smaller companies.

Under the new initiative, employers seeking to recruit apprentices from underrepresented groups will register and be matched to businesses with spare money.

These smaller businesses will then be paired with a candidate that aligns to their own diversity and inclusion goals and requirements.

The retailer said the initiative was likely to be particularly attractive to smaller businesses and organisations that typically found creating apprenticeships more difficult.

It comes as Department for Education figures show that in 2019/2020, 9,500 young people from BAME communities missed out on apprentice opportunities. Just 13.3% of apprentices come from BAME backgrounds, though the same communities make up 16% of the UK population.

The Co-op’s ambition is that by 2023, the “apprentice opportunity gap” for young people from these communities will be overcome. 

The first transfers under the fund are expected to be available in April and will be open to companies and organisations in any sector.

“Apprenticeships are a vital part of the lives of thousands of young people as they start their careers – and vital for the UK economy and business competitiveness,” said Co-op Group CEO Steve Murrells.

“At the Co-op we have identified a significant opportunity to make the system fairer and more inclusive and benefit communities which are disadvantaged. Our levy sharing scheme is designed to ensure opportunities are fairly distributed and we believe it will help close an ‘opportunity gap’ that impacts so many young people.

“At the Co-op we have ambitious plans to become more diverse and inclusive and create greater social mobility. We know we cannot do that alone and today I am calling on other employers to join us in this important initiative and on the journey to becoming truly inclusive.”

The initiative has been designed in collaboration with Business in the Community, while the Co-op has also worked with the Department for Education to support the growth and development of apprenticeships.

Alongside the scheme, the Co-op has also been working with the BITC Race Advisory Board to ensure BAME candidates who secure roles through the scheme are set up for success with individual support that will include mentoring.

BITC race director Sandra Kerr said: “By pledging funds to this initiative, companies will help create new apprenticeship opportunities for young people across the business sector.

“With 33% of black employees feeling their ethnicity will pose a barrier to their next career move, this initiative will be a great step forward to addressing inequalities that exist today. However, this will only succeed if enough businesses show their support.

“Business leaders should fund this initiative and show they are serious about changing the record for young black, Asian and minority ethnic people more broadly by signing the Race at Work Charter. Together let’s make the apprentice opportunity gap a thing of the past.”

The announcement, which comes during National Apprenticeship Week, is the Co-op’s first major move since it set out its new diversity targets last year.

These include maximising the use of the apprenticeship levy to benefit BAME communities, a commitment to double the representation of black, Asian and minority ethnic leaders and managers across the business by the end of 2022, and encouraging a strong focus on inclusion for supply chain partners.

In September last year, Murrells also pledged a commitment from the business to be anti-racist in all that it did.