Co-op Group calls for apprenticeship levy change and more support for night workers

The Group has been sharing its experience and learnings with policymakers

The Co-op Group has been campaigning on a number of colleague issues and this week announced new developments on two of these: apprenticeships and nightshift workers.

Yesterday, CEO Steve Murrells opened a round table with representatives from the Department for Education, National Apprenticeship Service, National Society of Apprentices and Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. The session discussed a brand new report, commissioned by the Group, into the national apprenticeships programme with recommendations on change to government policy.

The 38-page report, prepared by the University of Warwick’s Institute for Employment Research (IER), considers the many differences between apprenticeships across sectors and employers, despite the standardised routes to government funding.

Related: Co-ops lead the way on apprenticeships

It analyses programmes across the food retail and funeral sectors specifically to understand how businesses can take different approaches to recruitment, training and operations as they face into their own sector’s challenges during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The report includes interviews with business leaders, the British Retail Consortium and the National Association of Funeral Directors.

Mr Murrells has shared the report in full with the Department for Education part of his role in the Department’s Business Engagement Forum. The study found that, across businesses:

• Compared to the funeral sector, food retail colleagues are more likely to be female, older and work part-time, based in smaller businesses.

• There are far more apprentices in the retail sector (10,885) than the funeral sector (782). However, the number of retail apprentices has fallen by about a quarter since 2014/15 whereas funeral sector apprentices have doubled over the same period.

• Almost nine out of ten funeral sector apprenticeships were at Intermediate level compared to 59% in retail. Around one in five retail apprenticeships are higher level (Level 4+).

• The funeral sector and food retail sector alike are seeing job roles broaden. In the funeral sector, there is increased workforce flexibility, and digital technology is impacting. Part-time and temporary working is likely to continue to rise; staff are undertaking a wider range of job functions; digitisation of organisational processes, customer communication and remote access funerals are likely to increase.

“Currently, we offer 1,200 apprenticeships across the Co-op,” said Mr Murrells. “These colleagues are based across our group, from our support centre in Manchester right through to the frontline in UK high streets, in our food stores and funeral homes. I’ve seen how their energy and new ways of thinking helps us to achieve a better way of doing business.

“Giving people the opportunity to make their mark through an apprenticeship can drive social mobility and help tackle the persistent inequalities in our society. That’s why I champion apprenticeships and also why we want to work with the government, following this report to future-proof the apprenticeship policy.”

Key issues include the apprenticeship levy, paid by businesses with an annual wage bill of more than £3m to fund training.

Peter Dickinson, senior research fellow at Warwick’s Institute for Employment Research, said: “The levy doesn’t currently cover the training some young people need just to qualify for an apprenticeship, or the additional training that can future-proof a young person’s career, like key digital skills. As employers cover these costs, the number of apprentices they can afford reduces.

“Also, we identified that small and medium enterprises are taking on fewer apprentices. It was originally 50% in 2018, but dropped to 43% last year. There needs to be some sort of levelling.”

Mr Murrells added: “This study shows us that companies in these two sectors alone have very different approaches, working with different apprentices with different needs – a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach just won’t work.

“As the pandemic continues and need for flexibility increases, the levy is holding employers back, of all sizes, from being able to increase the number of apprenticeships they can create at this critical time.

“We could offer hundreds more apprenticeships, particularly in those parts of the country hardest hit by the pandemic, following some simple changes to the current policy framework.”

The Group also launched a new manifesto in parliament calling on retailers and policy makers to address the deteriorating physical and mental health of night shift workers.

The country now has seven million night workers – 54% of whom were identified as key workers at the start of the Covid-19 crisis.

The Group has called on organisations to demonstrate a duty of care for night shift workers who are known to be at greater risk of developing heart disease, diabetes, cancer, gastrointestinal disorders, obesity and depression, all of which can be caused by chronic sleep disruption.

Related: Co-op Group reaches out to night workers

The Group has been working with the Wellcome Trust and Liminal Space, to roll out its award-winning sleep engagement programme Night Club to its 8,000 strong logistics workforce.

It has laid out the five ‘Rs’ which it believes will begin to create a template to help address the wider health and social issues created by the move towards a 24-hour society:

  1. Recognise and champion night workers as a coherent group
  2. Respond to their needs and place night shift workers at the heart of any solution
  3. Respect and understand that they face a specific set of challenges in a variety of working conditions
  4. Research-led approach to implement evidence-based solutions
  5. Raise their profile and mobilise a cross-industry response to mitigate these challenges

The retailer also states that in time, companies will and should be held legally responsible for the consequences of night work unless mitigating action is taken.

Supply chain and logistics director Andy Perry said: “It is essential that we, as employers, do everything in our power to establish a recognised framework of best practice which places the interests of nightshift workers at its heart and that policy is put in place to protect their physical and mental health.”

Recent Co-op research shows that night shift workers, who admit to feeling like the forgotten or invisible workforce, are twice as likely to miss out on key family events. Furthermore, that one in three are getting less than five hours sleep a night in comparison to one in six day time workers.

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