The Co-operative Group will offer “hundreds more retail apprenticeships” in a bid to drive greater social mobility and make use of greater flexibility in funding.
The organisation commissioned a report with the University of Warwick’s Institute for Employment Research, looking at how employers in two of its key sectors – food retail and funerals – use the apprenticeship levy to support their recruitment and training needs.
It revealed that there are far more apprentices in the retail sector (10,885) compared with the funeral sector (782). However, the number of funeral apprentices has doubled since 2014/15, while retail apprentices have decreased by around a quarter.
Nine in 10 funeral sector apprenticeships were at level 4 or above (higher apprenticeships), compared to 49% in retail. Apprentices in the food retail sector also tended to be female, older and work part-time, the research found.
With both sectors impacted significantly by the pandemic, particularly by technology, the Co-op has pledged to support “hundreds” of new apprenticeships in both areas.
The funeral sector, for example, is perceived to have an older workforce and a need for new entrants to be recruited and trained, while food retail could be impacted in the short to medium term by Brexit, researchers said.
CEO Steve Murrells said: “Currently, we offer 1,200 apprenticeships across the Co-op. These colleagues are based across our group, from our support centre in Manchester right through to the frontline in UK high streets, in our food stores and funeral homes. I’ve seen how their energy and new ways of thinking helps us to achieve a better way of doing business.”
He added that offering a broader range of apprenticeships could “drive social mobility and help tackle the persistent inequalities in our society”, but that the government could adjust aspects of the apprenticeship levy to make this easier.
“We want to help address how the national programme can better accommodate different needs, business to business, apprentice to apprentice,” he said.
One of the reforms Murrells would like to see is financial support that goes beyond the mandatory direct training and assessment for each apprenticeship. The requirement to provide 20% off-the-job training is harder to accommodate in some sectors or roles due to work patterns or how the training is delivered, for example.
Furthermore, some apprenticeship starters need to be brought up to speed with basic functional skills such as maths and English.
Peter Dickinson, senior research fellow at the Institute for Employment Research said: “Of those we spoke to, there is widespread need for apprenticeships to evolve, so that more opportunities can be delivered.
“The levy doesn’t currently cover the training some young people need just to qualify for an apprenticeship, or the additional training that can future-proof a young person’s career, like key digital skills, despite the fact this training is becoming increasingly important. As employers cover these costs, the number of apprentices they can afford reduces.”
The research also found that small and medium-sized employers are taking on fewer apprentices, dropping from 50% in 2018 to 43% last year.
“There needs to be some sort of levelling, so that all businesses of any size can create important opportunities for young people,” added Dickinson.
The Co-op has also urged training providers to create more career progression momentum around apprenticeships, for example through pre-apprenticeship training or incorporating units from higher-level apprenticeships that can be used for future job roles.
Murrells added: “The levy helps ensure apprenticeships are prioritised by businesses in England, creating opportunities for individuals and communities to enable social mobility in a sustainable way.
“As the pandemic continues and need for flexibility increases, the levy is holding employers back, of all sizes, from being able to increase the number of apprenticeships they can create at this critical time.
“We could offer hundreds more apprenticeships, particularly in those parts of the country hardest hit by the pandemic, following some simple changes to the current policy framework.”