Co-ops lead the way on apprenticeships

The Co-operative Group has made the list of top 30 employers for school leavers in the UK. The rating was based on a survey of over 2,500 young...

The Co-operative Group has made the list of top 30 employers for school leavers in the UK. The rating was based on a survey of over 2,500 young people who undertook apprenticeships, sponsored degree programmes and work experience in 2015.

The latest recognition follows years of commitment to offering apprenticeships and career opportunities.

Back in 2011 the Group launched an Apprenticeship Academy, backed by £9m worth of investment, offering thousands of jobs over a three-year period to young people under 25 across its family of businesses, which at the time ranged from food, pharmacy and motors to legal and financial services and farming.

All the youngsters were offered the chance to work towards a nationally recognised qualification and the opportunity to make it onto the Group’s management development programme, helping them to progress even further up the career ladder. Since then around 2300 colleagues have benefited from the apprenticeship frameworks pioneered by the academy.

In 2013, the industry’s first national apprenticeship framework was created by Co-operative Funeralcare, in partnership with the Sector Skills Council and a nationally recognised awarding body.

Funeralcare is the only UK funeral director to offer this apprenticeship, which is now compulsory for all its new recruits. It incorporates a QCF Level 2 and a QCF Level 3 in Funeral Operations and Services.

The initial launch saw 38 apprentices qualify as funeral directors and almost 500 new recruits start a funeral apprenticeship with the business. A further 1,000 have now been recruited and the Funeralcare apprenticeship programme is currently a flagship initiative for the Group.

Lloyd Thomas
Lloyd Thomas

Lloyd Thomas, group apprenticeship manager, said: “The Funeralcare industry is notoriously hard to get into. Many businesses are family or privately owned and if you’re not part of that family it’s quite difficult.

“This was a programme that wasn’t in existence. We created the framework with the sector skills council and it is now at the forefront of our operations.”

Across the board, the Co-operative Group has led the way in achieving best practice and reviewing standards.

In December 2014, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills approved the ‘trailblazer’ apprenticeship standard led by the Group which raised the game for all new programmes.

Mr Thomas has also welcomed the government’s new apprenticeship levy, which commits employers to setting aside 0.5 per cent of their payroll costs to support post-16 apprenticeship training

He is proud of the Group’s record in providing top-class training and permanent jobs for all apprentices who stay the course.

“A lot of our competitors use existing employees and apprenticeship wages can be very low,” he said. “We offer the rate for the job and once the apprenticeship is finished there is a real job at the end of it which is not the case with all apprenticeship programmes.

“It’s obviously great to get young people into the business. You get fresh ideas and different ways of looking at things through the eyes of younger people.  I think we see real commitment because they’ve got an opportunity to be able to earn and learn and gain skills.”

The current focus may be on Funeralcare apprenticeships but in the next 12 months, the Co-operative Group is also planning a new pilot scheme for 50 apprentices in the food sector in the south-east of England.

“This is a very exciting time for us and we are making significant investments,” said Mr Thomas.


Elsewhere, many independent co-operative societies offer a comprehensive range of apprenticeships and training. One of the most successful is Central England Co-operative, which has 400 retail outlets across 16 counties. The society has created 22 different training programmes which have now offered opportunities to over 1016 colleagues.

Doreen Bindley
Doreen Bindley

New recruits include customer service assistant Doreen Bindley, who at 76 embarked on an apprenticeship Level 2 in Retail Skills after 17 years working at a store in Desborough near Leicester.

She said: “I never thought I’d be doing something like this at my age, but I’m so glad I listened to my colleagues who said I should go for it.

“It’s been a long time since I was at school doing my O Levels, and it was quite daunting to think that I was going to be tested on things again. But doing an apprenticeship is all about learning on the job and I am enjoying every minute of it. I get to do my job surrounded by people I know and I’ll get a qualification at the end of it!”

All the apprenticeships are a chance for colleagues to gain a nationally recognised qualifications awarded by Edexcel and there are more advanced apprenticeship programmes, including Level 4 in management, project management and business improvements. Colleagues can also take part in an ILM Level 5 in leadership and management as part of a development programme.

Central England works in partnership with a company called Adaptive Business Support, and the apprenticeship programme is available to all colleagues irrelevant of their age or educational background.

Nicola Pugh
Nicola Pugh

Nicola Pugh, 25, works at John Wood’s florist in Stafford and is one of 10 to new recruits to gain a professional qualification in floristry and the chance of a new career

“I’ve been a hairdresser and care assistant and was looking for a job that was creative and working with people interested me a lot,” she said. “In the first round of interviews I was tasked to do a presentation and put together a hand-tied bouquet.

“I had a tutor who came out to assess me from Solihull College and attended workshops for a year, achieving a Level 2 diploma in work-based floristry. I also gained key skill qualifications in maths and English.”

She added: “It’s brilliant. I work with a great bunch of people who have taught me a lot. They all have techniques that differ slightly and I am now looking into gaining a Level 3 qualification.

“I love coming into work every day, it is a lovely environment. We see people at the happiest or worst times of their lives so you learn a lot in people skills. I was one of the guinea pigs for the new course. It has been really beneficial and I can’t see another way I would have got into it.”

Stacey Newsom
Stacey Newsom

Stacey Newsom has achieved an Advanced Level 3 in retail management and now works as a manager at a village store in Leicestershire.

“I got nominated for the apprenticeship in July 2013 by my group manager,” she said. “It was a chance to move forward and to gain the background knowledge I needed to develop my career. When I started the 12 month course I was a store supervisor at Mount Solwell in Leicestershire and I did it alongside my day job.

“There were all kinds of different course work assessments from customer service to managing people and situations. We also had to look at the legalities of running a store like fire risk and licensing. Assessors taught us how to put them into practice and we had to write up what we had learned. I had a tutor from Leicester College and I learnt a lot about myself. I am now hoping to take part in the store manager’s designate programme.

“The apprenticeship programme gives you that kick start you need. When it came up I never thought I would be a store manager. It enabled me to develop my skills and my long-term career and I would encourage anyone to do it. I was not very confident before and having to meet up with different assessors was a struggle at first but it moved me forward and did wonders for my confidence.”

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