News

07 February 2020

Martin Broadhurst: Looking to the Future of Apprenticeships

In our final blog celebrating National Apprenticeship Week, EOS Implementer MARTIN BROADHURST discusses how we should be mindful of the future needs of the economy when developing apprenticeships.

On January 13th, the latest apprenticeship statistics for England were released. Looking into the data, we find a mixed bag of results with some positive elements (apprenticeships starts are up year-on-year) and some negative elements (overall apprenticeship participation is down year-on-year).

Headline numbers, focusing on the number of apprenticeship starts and levels of participation, only tell part of the story and in many instances can be easily explained away (e.g. the 2016/17 changes to funding resulted in fewer new starts which have impacted the subsequent two years of data).

One area in particular that caught my eye was that of retail and the changes we see across the sector.

Keeping one eye on the future

We are entering a period of significant disruption. Old industries are being turned upside down, and once-reliable career paths are disappearing before our eyes.

As such, we must understand where industries are heading if we are to ensure apprenticeships continue to set people up for long and prosperous careers.

In the latest statistics, we see that the number of apprenticeships starts within a retail and commercial enterprise has declined from 21% to 13% as a proportion of all apprenticeships starts.

If you've visited any high street across the UK in recent years, this decline won't come as a surprise.

Yet, despite this, there were still 51,000 apprenticeship starts in this sector in 2018/19.

With a whole career ahead of them, we need to make sure these new starters are preparing for the retail jobs of 2035, not the retail jobs of 2020.

The RSA recently published a report into the future of work in the retail sector (Retail Therapy: Towards a future of good work in retail, 2019).

Three different scenarios as to what the future of retail might look like - The Empathy Economy, The Precision Economy, and the BigTech Economy - and potential consequences for each scenario were raised.

Looking across all three scenarios, there are some recommendations and actions we can take right now that would put learners in a good position for any scenario.

Introduce data analytics early into an apprenticeship

Whether we are looking at the front of store experience, logistics, or managing levels of stock, one thing is abundantly clear: the role of data is only going to get bigger.

As such, we need to start making sure learners are comfortable in this world. This doesn't mean asking a level two apprentice to perform a regression analysis on the relationship between daily takings and the weather.

It is as simple as explaining the different data points that exist for a modern retailer, how they are monitored, and why.

Keep a strong focus on soft-skills and customer service

Customer service skills have long been the cornerstone of a retail apprenticeship.

As the big tech firms and e-commerce increasingly fulfil our low-friction, low-consideration purchases (e.g. one-click purchase for everyday items), our expectations for in-store service will change.

We will expect greater personalisation and more authentic experiences. Two of the three scenarios identified in the RSA report highlight the importance of "hi-touch customer service roles" that will use "technologies to augment human capabilities".

This will require front-line workers to develop their insight and human empathy, combining their listening skills with new technologies.

Develop pathways for lifelong learning

Echoing the findings from the RSA report, I make a very specific request to apprenticeship providers in the retail space: Work with industry to develop an open, portable platform for learning and development accreditation for retail workers as that supports them throughout their careers.

The East Midlands lost 22,553 (11%) jobs in retail between 2011 - 2018.

Many of these jobs are considered to be low-skilled and women were disproportionately impacted.

Across our region, due to the M1 corridor and the importance of East Midlands Airport, the retail sector and its supply chain will continue to be a significant employer regardless of where the high-street ends up.

If our communities are to thrive in the new economy, with those being displaced from front-line retail work continuing to find suitable careers across the sector, we need to find innovative solutions to upskilling and retraining.

This presents a significant opportunity for providers who can work with industry to shape this essential offer.

In summary

The decline of the high-street is there for all to see, yet consumption continues to stay healthy.

As consumers, our expectations are changing and digital technologies are reshaping what is possible when it comes to how we buy.

While some shops will close, the average number of employees per store decreases, and the tasks that need doing are altering; we can be sure that having talented individuals building great careers in retail in here to stay.

So, in summary, we need to upskill our learners in areas such as data sciences and analytics (even at the most basic levels); we need to focus on soft skills such as developing empathy, listening, and critical thinking; and, finally, we need to develop lifelong learning pathways that allow people to find new jobs and opportunities within the sector while accommodating different learning styles.

For what it's worth, I believe these three recommendations are as applicable to retail as for almost any other sector.

National Apprenticeship Week Blogs 2020

Lucie Andrews: Myth Busting Apprenticeships
Isaac Azim: Why I Chose an Apprenticeship
Billie Elliott: Using an Apprenticeship to Change Career
Rebecca Ward: Using an Apprenticeship to Break Down Barriers
Nick Colquitt: Why Apprenticeships are Good for Business