Anne Seaman: 'The launch of a national skills academy for retail is a real boost for our industry'

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The Independent Online

After a long winter, there is nothing like a bit of sunshine to lift the spirits. It's the same story in these dark days of recession: a bit of good news is always welcome. As the Sector Skills Council for Retail we are excited by the fact that the launch of a National Skills Academy for Retail this month is a real boost for our industry's businesses and anybody who currently works, or is looking to work, in retail.

These are increasingly trying times. Despite current research that continues to suggest retail is faring much better than expected, things are undoubtedly set to feel tougher for our businesses and the pressure is unlikely to ease over the coming months. Keeping a close eye on cash flow and cutting any unnecessary costs is crucial in order to pull through, but the message from industry leaders in a recent advertising campaign was clear: to cut spending on training staff is a false economy.

Skills development is our best guarantee of future prosperity in the UK and nowhere is this more important than in retail. Our sector relies heavily on its people and continuing to develop both management and shop floor skills is an essential way of maintaining competitiveness as the market tightens.

Indeed, research in 2007 confirms that firms that don't train are two-and-a-half times more likely to fail than those that do. So, now is precisely the time to keep investing in the skills and talents of our people. Let's not forget that it is their commitment, productivity and professionalism that will ultimately make or break every organisation.

The National Skills Academy for Retail has been specially created to be the place where people go to find out more about retail skills. Offering top training and careers advice through its network of retail skills shops across the country, it will provide answers to the many questions asked by anyone looking to get in or get on in the industry.

Regardless of a person's circumstances, the National Skills Academy for Retail's affiliated skills shops are there to provide the very best advice on training and development. For people already in retail jobs, the training available opens up new possibilities and progression routes that can lead to exciting careers, including management.

One such route is through an apprenticeship. This work-based learning programme has rightly been grabbing the headlines recently, not least during Apprenticeship Week in March when Theo Paphitis hosted a Skillsmart Retail event to raise awareness of the benefits of a retail apprenticeship to both businesses and their staff.

Representatives from Tesco and Booths spoke passionately about the scheme, relating the many success stories borne out of offering retail apprenticeships in their stores. Emphasising the overwhelmingly positive impact they have had on in-store experience and the training needs of staff, Tesco highlighted the important fact that apprenticeships are open to all – with apprentices' ages ranging from 16 to 67 – and that their business was able to design the programme themselves in partnership with City & Guilds. This has ensured that it remains the perfect fit and serves as a great example of how it can be done in other retail organisations.

The support for skills from within the sector has been matched by the Government's further commitment to bring education closer together with the industry through the diploma in retail business. This qualification is designed to equip students in England with the skills to work in the industry, as well as experience for their next stage of development at university, college or in the world of work.

It will appeal to young people who wish to stay in full-time education, but also want to undertake a mix of general and vocational learning. Because the diploma will be driven by employers' skills requirements, students will apply their subject knowledge in real business scenarios.

This drive to professionalise retail skills and raise awareness of the industry's opportunities among young people is even greater evidence of retail's transition from a sector of sales assistants to a profession of choice.

As well as the ray of light that the Nationals Skills Academy for Retail and these training programmes bring, you can rest assured that the recession won't dampen Skillsmart Retail's spirits. We continue to work with all retail employers, the Government and the UK Commission for Employment and Skills to make the skills system simple and easy to access, ensuring it adds maximum value to retail businesses and their people.

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