The recent Government paper 'Jobs for the Future' has highlighted that retail, the largest private sector employer in the UK, will be instrumental in limiting unemployment and lifting the country out of recession. This comes shortly after a poll by Skillsmart Retail revealed that 57 per cent of Conservative MPs felt that the Government did not value the retail sector highly enough.

As the Sector Skills Council for Retail, we have long known how vital the industry is politically, as well as socially and economically. It is in a unique position, being the bedrock of communities, a magnet for tourists and a fantastic route into sustainable employment for people of all ages and abilities. What other sector can offer flexible working, exciting professional careers with great pay, and the chance to learn the skills and knowledge to kick-start a career or set up a new business idea?

Retail employs 3 million people, 10 per cent of the UK workforce, with a high concentration of employees (31 per cent) being people below the age of 24. This remains an increasingly important issue at Government level, with youth unemployment having risen sharply to its highest rate since 1995, according to the latest figures from the Office for National Statistics.

For young people starting work, retail offers bags of potential. It helps develop skills necessary not only for a successful retail career, but that can act as a great platform for entry to any sector. It is regularly cited as one of the best places to learn cutting-edge management skills and, regardless of the level at which people enter, the career pathways are varied and plentiful.

From graduates looking to make their mark in some of the UK's biggest businesses to returners to work looking for employment after a few years out of the market, there are many ways to climb the ladder. Regardless of the qualifications an individual may hold when they start, there are progression opportunities from shop floor into management for anyone with the right attitude, and competitive salaries at every level. For long-term unemployed or older workers, it's a good route to re-employment, offering low entry barriers and building confidence.

With a range of careers, such as operations and logistics, buying, visual merchandising, HR, finance, IT and marketing, retail has a diverse workforce and plenty of areas of special interest. It also offers a range of part-time, local and flexible working patterns to many people who have family, study or other work commitments.

Even in a recession, retail is the UK's favourite pastime. The industry is predicted to recruit significant numbers of workers over the next 10 years. These factors put retail in a unique position as the sector that can help people into sustainable employment and support economic recovery. But, going forward, skills remain central to a productive and high-performing industry. All retail employees must have the skills to develop their careers and contribute to improved productivity and profitability. An important step forward in achieving this has been the biggest overhaul of retail qualifications in 20 years, which came into effect in September this year.

Following demands for a simpler and transparent system from retailers, Skillsmart Retail worked to ensure retail became one of the first sectors to redesign its qualifications to fit into the new Qualifications and Credit Framework (QCF), a credit-based system that allows individuals to gain qualifications at their own pace along flexible routes. This gives learners the freedom to choose the direction of their career and the option to build bespoke fit-for-purpose learning packages. Employers will benefit from having their in-house training programmes mapped to QCF units, giving their employees nationally recognised qualifications.

The National Skills Academy for Retail's network of retail skills shops launched in April made it easier for everyone to access these qualifications, offering advice, training, qualifications, courses, placements, work experience and store management programmes. Alongside developments such as a new retail-specific diploma running alongside A-levels and GCSEs in England available from 2010, we will set a national benchmark for world-class skills across the industry. This will ensure we retain a highly skilled workforce in productive retail businesses, capable of delivering the very best service and boosting retail's current £268bn-a-year contribution to the economy.