Address apprenticeship inflexibility to boost jobs, says retail body

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The inflexibilities in the apprenticeship levy system need to be addressed if the retail sector is to stem job losses, the head of the British Retail Consortium has said.

There were around 85,000 (2.8%) fewer jobs in the UK retail sector in the third quarter of this year than a year ago, according to the BRC’s Retail Employment Monitor. Full-time employment dropped 4.5%, while the number of part-time jobs fell by 1.5%.

Retail employees also saw the number of hours they worked reduce: total hours fell by 2.6%, with full-time employees seeing a greater reduction in hours (3.2%) than part-time staff (2.0%).

Numerous retailers, including Mothercare, New Look and Tesco, have announced job cuts in the past year, while Bonmarché, the fashion chain for the over-50s, went into administration last week putting thousands of jobs at risk.

BRC chief executive Helen Dickinson called on the government to enact policies that would enable retailers to invest more in the millions of people who choose a career in the sector.

She said: “In order to promote innovation, training and productivity, government must reform both the broken business rates system, and the inflexibilities of the apprenticeship levy. This will allow retailers to focus on enhancing their digital and physical offerings for customers, support the development of employees and ensure high streets remain diverse and exciting places for everyone.”

Earlier this year Dave Lewis, the CEO of the UK’s largest retailer, Tesco, said there was not enough flexibility in the apprenticeship levy to enable it to take on as many apprentices as it would like.

He said Tesco was “barred” from taking on more apprentices cost-effectively, as it could only use around 20% of the money it paid in to the levy pot.

Dickinson said that, while MPs “rail against job losses in manufacturing”, their response to retail job cuts had been muted.

“We have seen a persistent downwards trend in retail employment over the past three years.

“Weak consumer demand and Brexit uncertainty continue to put pressure on retailers already focused on delivering the transformation taking place in the industry,” she said.

The BRC added it expected the long-term decline in retail employment – as seen over 15 consecutive quarters – to continue.

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