A practical guide to making apprenticeships work for the retail sector

Stacey Hayes-Allen
4 March, 24

The pandemic aftermath, Brexit, the struggling brick-and-mortar high street and the cost-of-living crisis have all caused significant challenges for the retail industry over the past few years. This has resulted in many businesses closing shop entirely. Others are reducing the number of physical stores they have, as well as rethinking business strategies in order to stay afloat, as more onus is placed on e-commerce.

These shifts have resulted in many businesses struggling to find talent to fill vacancies, while simultaneously battling to meet and react to the demands of the changing industry. In fact, the number of job vacancies in the retail sector remains high, with there being an estimated 127,000 retail vacancies between September and November 20231.

What’s needed, explains Stacey Hayes-Allen, Director of Partnerships at Arden University, is a two-pronged approach – a solution that helps to attract new recruits and also upskills existing employees, so they’re able to adapt to the changing needs of the industry. She expands on this below.

How degree apprenticeships can help the retail industry

To entice people to stay in the industry, the opportunity to progress within the company or sector is a crucial factor that motivates loyalty. This is especially important during a time when so many changes are happening – upskilling hits both nails on the head. 

Unfortunately, a lot of people perceive the retail sector as a starting point or as a temporary job to support their education and lifestyle while they figure out their long-term career goals, not realising the potential career prospects. Offering the opportunity to progress beyond the shop floor will not only draw people into your company, but it will also ensure that your employees feel more inclined to stay at your business, as they can visualise how their career could pan out.

A degree apprenticeship is a good way to go about this, as it ensures those working in the industry can work towards a senior management position that helps to drive retail businesses forward in a testing market. It’s a job that’s often challenging, yet hugely rewarding, as the economic climate demands innovation from the retail industry. An apprenticeship degree can equip employees to do just that.

The guide to making sure apprenticeships work

Research shows that only 1.5% of the UK’s 4.4 million active employers are taking on apprentices, despite available funding. This is usually down to employers often being concerned that apprenticeships will make it too difficult to manage employee time, as they still need staff to work as education commitments grow. Businesses may also hesitate to invest in training apprentices if they fear they may leave for other opportunities after completing their apprenticeship.

But with government funding and the right support, employers can help to train and retain their staff, and a lot of post-graduates do tend to stay at their employer after finishing their studies if the workplace fosters a supportive environment. There are several ways to ensure learners feel supported. At the end of the day, managing a job and education simultaneously can be intense. Below are some steps to make degree apprenticeships work, so your business can close its talent shortage: 

Prioritise learning and development

A lack of employer support is the most common reason for apprentice dropouts. Having a dedicated team member – or a learning and development champion – to guide and support learners is crucial. This ensures proper care for learners and helps to recruit appropriate candidates for courses.

Find suitable employees

To find the right apprentice, it’s important to align their personal and professional goals with your business objectives. Consult with line managers, hold information sessions and speak with employees to identify the right employees to onboard.

Take time to check in

Take some time out to make sure your apprentice is applying their learning in their day-to-day job to add value in the workplace and boost their confidence. This will also help the apprentice convert workplace experiences into learning opportunities and transform experiences into business value. This can involve encouraging apprentices to engage with senior stakeholders, which will ensure their learning is aligned with business needs and boost their professional development and confidence.

Train line managers

Line managers supporting apprentices should actively participate in regular progress reviews. This involves preparing for and attending reviews with the educational institution, as well as providing support towards the implementation of the action points identified. This will also require line managers to support learners with off-the-job training and prepare the rest of the team for learners to spend a little less time at work while they focus on their studies.

It’s crucial that line managers are prepared to support learners effectively and, often, offering training in this area can help.

Degree apprenticeships in retail can push your workers to reach senior management and leadership positions. These jobs are challenging but rewarding, and if businesses offer the right support and communicate well with learners, they will be sure to reap the benefits as the retail industry transforms in the next decade.

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