Supermarkets check in

Until now big retailers have been slow to take part in Modern Apprenticeships.

Over the decades, the Midlands-based department store group Beatties, like many employers, has seen a variety of government-funded youth training programmes, including the Youth Training Scheme and the Youth Training Programme, come and go. Indeed, as Neil Moss, the group's controller for training and development, points out: "Change has been constant."

Over the decades, the Midlands-based department store group Beatties, like many employers, has seen a variety of government-funded youth training programmes, including the Youth Training Scheme and the Youth Training Programme, come and go. Indeed, as Neil Moss, the group's controller for training and development, points out: "Change has been constant."

As a result, the latest attempt to replace the industrial apprenticeship schemes of the past could have been seen as just another variation on a theme. However, Moss is enthusiastic about the Modern Apprenticeship programme, rating it "probably the best" initiative so far.

He regards the role of the Learning and Skills Council (LSC), which runs the programme through local offices around the country as part of its responsibility for all post-16 education in England, as highly significant. As the body charged with raising skills levels and so helping to deal with Britain's productivity problem, the Learning and Skills Council has a keen interest in maintaining the quality and consistency of the scheme. At the same time, the establishment of sector skills councils ensures that the training has the relevance that previous initiatives were felt by employers to lack.

The Modern Apprenticeships concept was introduced in 1994, and was intended to act in much the same way as the old-fashioned apprenticeships familiar from such diverse businesses as engineering and football, in providing a bridge between full-time education and work. Available to people between the ages of 16 and 24 who are leaving full-time education or are already working, Modern Apprenticeships are designed to offer a vocational alternative to further education in the form of nationally recognised qualifications.

There are two forms of the Modern Apprenticeship - foundation and advanced. Under the former, participants either have a job and a wage, or a work placement and a training allowance. They work - typically for a year - towards attaining National Vocational Qualifications level 2: key skills in such areas as information technology, team-working and communication and a technical certificate. Under the advanced MA, which can follow on from a foundation programme, they are in full-time employment and are aiming to attain a technical, supervisory or junior management role. Apprentices usually take two years to prepare for level 2 NVQs as well as the key skills and training certificate. Many move on to higher levels of NVQs and higher education.

Those interested in taking this training route can choose from more than 100 modern apprenticeships, ranging from accountancy to transport. They can work with such well-known companies as the defence group BAe Systems, the car-maker Honda and the mobile phone network Orange. Last year, more than 155,000 people applied to join an apprenticeship and there are now more than 220,000 MAs working across Britain in businesses ranging from small enterprises to well-known multinationals.

But the Government, having approved various adaptations and refinements of the scheme since it took it over on coming to power in 1997, is keen that it should reach further. It wants 28 per cent of people aged between 16 and 21 to start a modern apprenticeship for the first time.

Though take-up has been good in industries strongly associated with traditional apprenticeships, such as engineering, and manufacturing and construction, there has been concern at the comparatively low turn-out within retail, an industry that is one of the UK's biggest employers and one of the country's more successful sectors. At the end of last year, there were nearly 11,000 MAs in the sector. David Sherlock, the chief inspector of Adult Learning, says: "The basic problem is that the big retailers have until now stood back from Modern Apprenticeships." Though there have been one or two exceptions, the overall result has been that standards have not been set as firmly as they ought to have been, he adds. He feels that this has contributed towards the retail sector's extremely high failure rates, with about 75 per cent of apprenticeships not completed.

Mr Sherlock attributes the reluctance of the big retailers to become involved to the belief that, in a highly competitive industry, training is a potential differentiator and therefore something to be developed internally rather than shared through a government programme. But others point to big employers' frustration with the bureaucracy of national schemes and their dissatisfaction with the relevance of previous forms of NVQs as major reasons for the larger stores groups deciding to go it alone.

Consequently, the recent announcements of pilot schemes involving the supermarket rivals Asda and Tesco - two of the country's most successful retailers and biggest employers, and both noted for their commitment to training - are seen as encouraging. Announcing the project that will initially involve 1,000 Asda employees at eight north London stores, David Smith, the supermarket chain's People Director, explained that the company had worked closely with the LSC and City & Guilds, the leading body for work-related qualifications, to create "a well thought out and relevant Retail Modern Apprenticeship".

The "flexibility and can-do approach" that impressed him is perhaps owing to the influence of the National Modern Apprenticeship Task Force set up by the Government last autumn under the chairmanship of Centrica chief executive Sir Roy Gardner. Rod Kenyon, the director of the British Gas engineering academy within Centrica and secretary to the task force, said the key remit of the body was "to increase employer engagement". With members drawn from the boards of some of Britain's biggest employers, as well as the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), the Trades Union Congress (TUC) and other interested organisations, the aim is to spread the message that the apprenticeships form a worthwhile alternative to further education for many school-leavers.

They "should be seen as a route that is of equal value to society", says Mr Kenyon, adding that British Gas takes on 500 modern apprentices a year. However, the programme is not without its problems. Many young people still fail to complete the courses, and small and medium-sized businesses seem reluctant to become involved, while the TUC - although supportive - wants to see the scheme used to widen access to structured training for ethnic minorities, disabled people and women.

But many are trying to make the best of it. Moss says the Beatties programme - which currently involves 60 young people training mainly in retail with a few in administration - can be a challenge to some school-leavers who may initially lack the confidence to deal with the public or to face the world of work after years in a classroom. But, he adds: "If you get it right and the young person develops in the way you hope they will," it can lead to great opportunities. At Beatties, a high proportion of apprentices become full-time employees; others have even been promoted to senior management.

STUDY IN THE REAL WORLD: A SPORTSMAN'S STORY

Dave Weighill was a keen skateboarder and BMX biker who might have drifted into going to college if it hadn't been for the Modern Apprenticeship scheme.

Having started working part-time in Underground, a specialist store for extreme sports in Weymouth, Dorset, as a teenager, he had the opportunity to start an MA in retail while working full-time.

Now aged 21, Mr Weighill completed the course in 2002, within the two years allowed, and is still at Underground.

He is pleased that he did not go to college, where he would "just have been spoken at", and then had to learn the skills he needed in a job. He acknowledges that his detailed knowledge of the sport would have enabled him to get by in the shop without qualifications. But the scheme made it easy for him to get them while continuing to work at something he really enjoyed.

The centre he had to attend for his training in key skills such as IT was just around the corner from the shop, while he was able to do the studying required at home or in the shop if it was quiet. "I've got qualifications that I can use anywhere in retail," he says.

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