Personnel Today Awards 2019: The Co-op checks out with the Apprenticeship Employer of the Year prize

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

The Co-op’s success in attracting people into retail and its commitment to internal training and mobility saw it scoop the 2019 Personnel Today Awards prize in the Apprenticeship Employer of the Year category. But competition was stiff; the runners-up have plenty to celebrate.


The Co-op

The retail, legal and insurance services co-operative group has trained more than 4,500 apprentices in recent years and currently has about 1,000 apprentices on its programme. The organisation pays the full rate for its roles and offers permanent contracts.

In recent years the Co-op has sought to combat what it calls “stereotypical views” of retail not offering proper careers and set out to excite and engage people who may not have considered how rewarding a career in retail could be. It identified that lack of training was one of the top issues colleagues wanted to address and that more development programmes were part of the answer. In response, it decided to provide apprenticeship programmes to colleagues with aims including: to reduce attrition and improve internal mobility; grow its own talent pipeline and produce more of its own leaders; maximise the benefit of its levy contributions; and include colleagues who wished to develop their maths and English abilities.

Some colleagues who had applied for the apprenticeship programmes weren’t meeting the minimum entry requirements in these areas, particularly where English wasn’t their first language. To support them and increase inclusivity, Co-op developed a joint programme with Hart L&D using a combination of face-to-face and webinar delivery. All but one of the first 16 colleagues have successfully achieved their qualification and are now moving on to a full apprenticeship programme. The Co-op says it is the first retailer to introduce this approach and is supporting other retailers who want to follow.

Retailer level 2 and retail team leader programmes proved successful. Then it was found that the chartered manager degree apprenticeship programme was the ideal vehicle to enable Co-op managers to combine practical workplace experience with academic theories of management, developing both themselves and the business. The organisation partnered with Anglia Ruskin University, which was the only academic institution it found that could offer a closed cohort, avoid busy commercial trading times and provide a bespoke programme.

The resulting programme deeply aligned with the Co-op’s strategic needs at a time when the organisation had recently rebranded and gone back to its roots through a revitalised membership offer. The schemes have proved highly effective at improving retention, career development, internal promotion and a stronger sense of shared values among colleagues.


Anglian Water Alliances

The company has established a collaborative skills partnership with the College of West Anglia to create a bespoke apprenticeship programme for local people seeking to pursue a career in engineering and construction sectors. The Anglian Water Collaborative Skills Partnership is aimed at promoting a joint approach to employability between college and employers to sustain a cluster of future labour skills. It works with local schools and community stakeholders to engage young people on qualifications at levels 2 and 3 with a guaranteed job interview for an apprenticeship with Anglian Waters Alliances partners.

The partnership emerged after a discussion recognised the substantial challenges facing the local community where four of the eight most deprived areas in the UK are located (according to national indices for health, education, crime, income, employment, housing and services).

Because this programme is sponsored by 13 large employers in the Anglian Water Alliances participating student/apprentices are exposed to a variety of job roles and gain a broad experience working in various vocational contexts for different employers.

Overall, across the first phase of a two-year training cycle 27 apprentices (80%) have secured employment with Anglian Water Alliances partners from a completing cohort of 34 students. All of those who completed the programme but didn’t secure employment within the Anglian Water Alliances have secured jobs elsewhere to deliver a 100% success rate on positive employment outcome.

Ibstock Brick

This brickmaker and supplier has a long-serving, highly skilled engineering workforce. However, it became concerned that it could lose knowledge and expertise as older workers retired, and wanted to nurture a new generation who would bring new skills, energy, ideas and enthusiasm to the business. To do this, it invested in the development of a comprehensive apprenticeship programme, designed to deliver world-class engineering skills. Ibstock also wanted to deliver this company-wide, rather than on a local level, so it met the needs of the entire business.

During the first year of the programme, apprentices develop practical skills with access to facilities at training provider MAKE UK’s Technology Centre. All apprentices are residential as the firm wants them to build a strong network for their future. In the following three years, they attend MAKE UK on block release to complete their academic training, alongside on-the-job learning at an Ibstock factory. Each apprentice has a clear personal development plan to take them through their apprenticeship into their career.

Significant emphasis is placed on mentoring with all apprentices having a nominated factory mentor and a regional coach – all of whom are fully engaged with the apprenticeship programme. This approach allows Ibstock to go beyond teaching practical skills, covering the development of attitudinal and behavior skills that are essential for the safe and efficient operation of the firm’s factories.

On completion, apprentices receive a level 3 advanced manufacturing and engineering mechatronics technician apprenticeship, and Ibstock expects the apprentice to be appointed as an engineering operative. Currently the firm has 33 apprentices, with a further 10 planned to start by September 2019. The apprentices are regarded as fundamental to the firm’s factory teams, and are expected to contribute from day one. The impact of the scheme is reflected in the 16% improvement in overall equipment effectiveness on brick manufacturing facilities over the past seven years.

Lloyds Banking

Since 2017 Lloyds Banking has sought to transform its apprenticeship strategy and delivery to: increase the number of starts; broaden the range of skills apprentices can develop; gain experience of the apprenticeship levy; and alter the perception that only young people were welcome.

In 2019 Lloyds has doubled the number of starts to 1,500, fully utilising its levy spend to more than £5.5m; fully aligning its 10 skills groups with 34 programmes offered across the entire business from entry level roles to those in senior leadership and specialist functions. It has also created a clear offer for all colleagues regardless of location.

Coupled with these objectives is a strategy to increase diversity, re-energise the bank’s attraction and recruitment strategy, while challenging misconceptions around banking and apprenticeships. The Group works with the National Autistic Society to recruit/train young people with autism into digital roles; with BITC to recruit/train ex-offenders into support roles; with WorldSkills UK to champion LGBT+ issues; and with NAS as active members of the BAME network.

The new strategies have been met with measurable benefits such as improved sickness absence, reduced contractor costs, an increase to 12% BAME intake, 41.3% of intake from the UK’s most disadvantaged areas and 45% being between 16 and 24 years old. Some 22% of achievers in entry level roles are promoted compared with 6% of non-apprentices.

MTR Elizabeth line

MTR Elizabeth line, formerly MTR Crossrail, having been awarded the concession by Transport for London (TfL) in 2015. The route will pass through 41 stations from Reading and Heathrow in the west, through new tunnels to Shenfield and Abbey Wood in the east.

Its challenge was to recruit 1,100 staff, 450 of whom were drivers with 250 being new to the industry. A range of apprenticeships was developed to support staff to operate industry best practice and to help achieve business objectives.

The resulting apprenticeships run from level 1 to 4 including for train drivers, passenger transport service operations staff and head office personnel. As part of the transport trailblazer employer group MTR Elizabeth line developed apprenticeship standards that set out the skills, knowledge and behaviours needed for newcomers to be competent in their roles. A pioneering union partnership was developed (a first for the rail industry) to future-proof training and development and get onboard with Aslef’s charter for apprentices.

About 400 apprenticeship opportunities have been created so far helping realise the Department for Transport’s ambition of 30,000 apprenticeship starts by 2020.

Over a third of MTR Elizabeth line’s workforce is completing an apprenticeship and the organisation says its investment in people is a significant contributory factor to its high level of employee engagement – a company engagement score of 85%, an overall response score of 78% and a 97% employee attendance rate.


The UK’s principal digital network business has recently focused on training up the next generation of engineers.

The decision to recruit apprentice engineers stemmed from several factors. At the time, Openreach faced a staff retention challenge with 16% of engineers leaving the business. Coupled with the fact that it was witnessing increased customer demand, and minimum service levels requirements from Ofcom, the business needed to address two key issues. Firstly, it had to re-establish itself as an employer of choice – one that provided genuine career satisfaction for people from all walks of life. And it needed to be ready to provide a world-class network in an increasingly competitive marketplace.

The resulting shake-up of Openreach’s Strategic Workforce Plan meant recruiting 3,500 apprentice engineers – 1,200 more than it would usually recruit annually. Openreach strove to provide these apprentices with a “big bold” programme accessible to all ages and backgrounds, providing them with a career that they could be proud of.

It decided that candidates would not need engineering experience, but they would need the right attitude to succeed. A streamline assessment programme was initiated using a strengths-based situational test an online video interview and a face to face assessment. Outcomes were communicated to candidates within 48 hours.

As an apprenticeship levy payer, Openreach has spent £7 million out of British Telecom’s levy contribution, and describes the results as outstanding. Around 3,500 apprentice engineers were hired within a 12-month period, including solving the challenge of the business’s “hot spot” areas. Almost one fifth of these hires were from a BAME background (18%). The company received 20 applicants for every role, with the total time from application to offer standing at just 26 days, including all onboarding processes.

Royal & Sun Alliance

Leading international insurer RSA set out to improve its entry talent pipeline to meet business needs in core specialisms claims and underwriting. It wanted to improve diversity and inclusion in its recruitment, offer professional development opportunities to its employees, retain more talent and extend professional development.

More than 200 existing employees are now undertaking various qualifications via apprenticeships, allowing them to develop professionally and fulfil career progression aspirations. RSA is also employing future leaders and technical experts through a college leaver’s programme, providing their first roles in the industry.

RSA wants to access the best talent from a diverse range of backgrounds, and through apprenticeship attraction it has started to break down social mobility and diversity barriers and work with young people from socially deprived and BAME backgrounds. It is working in partnership with several charities and other organisations to support this aim and has recruited apprentices through these charities.

While it is early days for apprenticeships at RSA the company has seen significant benefits to the business. It has reported: higher than average pass rates; huge uptake by existing employees (aged 16-60); the achievement of raised diversity and inclusion ambitions; the filling of entry roles; and finalist status in the school leaver awards 2019 and cII chartered status achieved in 2018 and renewed in 2019.


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