How the Co-op uses apprenticeships to shake up career progression

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By focusing on career progression, The Co-op’s award-winning retail apprenticeship programme is helping improve retention and alter the outdated perception that retail does not offer a rewarding career. Apprenticeship manager Louise Timperley tells Personnel Today how it is transforming entry level roles.

You’re unlikely to find many school leavers who aspire towards a career in retail, perhaps because of wrong, outdated and stereotypical views that it does not offer a rewarding career path and the perception that it is low-skilled and low paid.

However, the Co-op has sought to change these outdated perceptions with its comprehensive apprenticeship strategy, which offers participants a clear path of career progression and the opportunity to address real business challenges while they learn.

Personnel Today Awards 2020

Apprenticeship Employer 2019

The Co-op team receive the Apprenticeship Employer of the Year prize at the Personnel Today Awards 2019 event

Do you have an apprenticeship programme to shout about? Entries for the Personnel Today Awards 2020, which includes an Apprenticeship Employer of the Year category, are now open. The awards take place at the Grosvenor House Hotel on Park Lane in November 2020.

It was this outlook that earned the Co-op both the Apprenticeship Employer of the Year and Overall Winner titles at the 2019 Personnel Today Awards, with judges impressed with how the organisation used its apprenticeship programmes to improve retention, increase internal promotion opportunities and develop a strong sense of shared values among colleagues.

Retail and food development is the Co-operative Group’s second largest area in terms of numbers of apprenticeships, with around 400 learners currently taking part in a programme.

Across the Co-op  as a whole, around 1,200 apprentices are taking part in programmes in areas including HR, software development, procurement, , project management and finance. Funeralcare has the largest apprentice cohort with over 500 people taking part in funeral team member, funeral services operative and funeral director programmes.

In retail specifically, apprenticeships are offered at all levels, from its entry level Retailer programme at level 2, right up to its Chartered Manager degree apprenticeship programme at level 6.

“A key part of our strategy involves bringing in people on level 2 apprenticeships, but with a clear line of sight towards the level 3 Retail Team Leader and level 4 Retail Manager programmes,” says Louise Timperley, apprenticeship manager at the Co-op, who is involved with  apprenticeships right across the organisation – from Funeralcare programmes to those in finance and HR.

“We could see that entry level apprentices would benefit by learning about retail as a career., and putting the knowledge into practice. They wouldn’t just be coming in and doing a job, and then going home – they would actually be thinking about the next steps in their career,” she says.

Hands-on experience

The Co-op began offering apprenticeships across all divisions in 2011, primarily because it wanted to introduce learning and development that would give learners hands-on experience in their job role.

“We had an issue with low retention and turnover was pretty high,” admits Timperley.

They wouldn’t just be coming in and doing a job, and then going home – they would actually be thinking about the next steps in their career,” – Louise Timperley, apprenticeship manager

“We tried to get some feedback from colleagues as they were leaving and from managers of colleagues who had left. In many cases, they didn’t feel part of the business – they were coming in, doing the job and going home – and many felt they were not getting the support and training in order to do their jobs better.

“One of the solutions that was discussed was a training programme that included one-off training days, but they were not really linked to a career development programme.”

One member of the Co-op apprenticeships team was leading on the development of the retail Trailblazer apprenticeship programmes, and was able to help shape the organisation’s own programmes using insight gained from other retail businesses and feedback from Co-op colleagues.

The Retailer programme in particular involves practical on-the-job training – including helping customers in stores and processing payments – but also delivers fundamental retail theory that will assist learners in their long-term careers. Off-the-job modules include understanding the vision of the business and its customer profile and merchandising.

Most training is delivered in-house with some modules delivered by external specialists.

Timperley says: “One focus of the Retail apprenticeship programmes is merchandising. Our stores are sometimes small; they’re convenience stores, not supermarkets. We know it’s pretty critical which promotions we have in place, and our colleagues need to know what offers and visual prompts work to increase the number of items in customers’ baskets.”

Some of the more theory-based training is delivered off-site. When apprentices return to their store they will talk to their manager about what they’ve learnt and the manager will link their learning with examples and opportunities in the workplace.

“All of our colleagues move around the store throughout the day, so you won’t find one person on the till all the time and another person replenishing stock; they get to know the full picture of being in a retail store and learning about what that involves,” she says.

“We have one young man who’s completed the level 2 and level 3 programmes and has just been promoted to a store manager. He’s been blown away by the support he’s had and how the apprenticeships have benefitted him in his career, and there are lots of other stories like that from around the business.”

Language support

How coronavirus has affected apprenticeships at the Co-op

Like many in the retail sector, colleagues at the Co-op – including apprentices – have been working flat out to keep the nation stocked with essential supplies over the past couple of months.

“All our stores are so busy; it’s very challenging being in a small store and having social distancing to maintain,” says Timperley.

“All of our retail apprentices are on a break in learning until the end of May, as they really wanted to focus on supporting their store colleagues and customers and members. It has been hard to focus on any off-the-job training that’s required for apprentices, because they just needed to be available to support customers. That decision was taken by talking to apprentices and senior leaders, and everybody’s very comfortable with it. We’re aiming to restart the learning in the very near future, though.”

Staff who have been self-isolating have been able to continue with some of the off-the-job knowledge-based learning if they wish to, while many people in the Co-op’s head office support functions have been able to continue with their apprenticeships. In fact, five learners began a project management apprenticeship in April.

“Most of our training providers offer remote training sessions, with live and recorded webinars, anyway. Even the small ones we work with have got very good remote learning set ups that enable that to happen,” she says.

One particular success Timperley is proud of is the pre-apprenticeship programme that helps employees for whom English is a second language get onto its apprenticeship programmes. To take part in some apprenticeships in England, individuals are required to have a certain level of English and mathematics competency; this proved a challenge for some colleagues.

“We felt that some were being disadvantaged before they’d even got on the programme, as their English was not strong enough to navigate the application or the pre-assessments,” she says.

“The pre-apprenticeship programme helps them to get to the required level of English to reapply for the programme, and many have since started their apprenticeship. This not only helped them with their apprenticeship, but also in life in general.”

Degree apprenticeships

In addition to entry-level apprenticeships, The Co-op also runs a  management degree apprenticeship programme, which is much more structured. It partnered with Anglia Ruskin University to deliver the course, which sees learners across the country attend “block release weeks” at a hotel in Nottingham to take part in academic learning, workshops, group work, role play and work-based assignments.

Often, degree apprentices’ work is linked to real-life challenges that the senior leadership team would like input on. For example, some learners from retail stores and others from the logistics division were asked to look into how to improve some of the efficiencies within some of the supply chain processes.

“They come up with real business problems to include in the programme and encourage the apprentices to think about what could be done about it, so they really feel like they’re adding value throughout their apprenticeship – not just going away and writing a dissertation,” says Timperley.

“It’s really helped people in stores understand some of the challenges that people in the support functions face, and vice versa. It develops a real sense of understanding across those teams.”

Elsewhere in the organisation, the Co-op is looking at expanding its apprenticeship cohort further by introducing new programmes in finance and customer services over the next 12 months.

“We’ve got some finance apprentices in the business but the programme has been very ad-hoc,” says Timperley. “One of the programmes we’re looking to bring in is a career progression programme for finance, starting at level 2 and eventually building up to a level 7 professional accountancy apprenticeship.

“In customer services, for the people who work in our shared services centre, the plan is to build customer service apprentices up into team leaders and take them into more of a management apprenticeship, such as level 3 team leader and level 5 operations manager.”

Next generation of apprentices

Timperley is also excited about the work the Co-op has been doing around entry level recruitment in retail. Working in partnership with the 25 academies the Co-op sponsors, it is currently working on the implementation plan for a yearlong work placement scheme which it hopes will encourage school-leavers to join a Co-op apprenticeship programme in 2021.

“We have  our sixth form college on board and from September 20 of the students on the BTEC business studies programme are going to be coming into the Co-op one day per week for the whole year,” she says.

“It’s a work placement programme with a difference. They won’t just be coming in to shadow people, they will actually be doing real work with our teams.

“Once those individuals come in, it’s going to be so good for their career development. They may join us after that, they may not, but nevertheless we will have given them a great opportunity to build up their CV very significantly.”

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Ashleigh Webber

About Ashleigh Webber

Ashleigh has been a business journalist since 2012. She covers HR, recruitment and employment issues, as well as occupational health and wellbeing.
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