How co-ops are delivering social mobility through training and apprenticeships

We speak to Paul Gerrard from the Co-op Group and Heather Lee from Lincolnshire Co-op

The government’s ‘Levelling Up’ agenda has prompted national debate around social mobility and regional regeneration, and the Co-op Group has joined the discussion to stress the importance of work skills and providing local opportunities.

Paul Gerrard, campaigns director at the Group, says this in part means redefining the idea of social mobility. “The conversation has been about elite jobs – you take the kid from a broken home in a tower block, and you mentor them through school and university, and they become a QC.”

The problem with this, he points out, is that there are only so many jobs to go around at this level – and those jobs mean people have to move away from their home towns to the city, even if they don’t want to. It also reflects a bias against productive and often lucrative careers – such as those in retail.

“Social mobility, as currently defined, means that you’ve got to leave your community and only a special few can get that,” says Mr Gerrard.

These elite jobs are also less diverse in socio-economic terms. Working class trades such as bricklaying and joinery can bring high incomes but they are not valued in the way that graduate jobs are, says Paul.

“You look at the Co-op, or the retail societies, and a much higher proportion of their senior management are from lower socio economic backgrounds”, he adds: and this embedding of local economic opportunity is part of what brought the Rochdale Pioneers together. “Ultimately what co-operation is about is about people prospering – but, critically, prospering together. Social mobility is about people getting on, families getting on, and doing better than they were when they were kids.”

The Co-op Group is well-placed to reshape this narrative, he adds – not least because its CEO Steve Murrells started his career on the shop floor. “He became what would now be called an apprentice at 18. And now he is chief executive of the sixth biggest food retailer in the country.”

This conversation still has a way to run, says Paul; discussion of the Northern Powerhouse and the controversy over HS2 is notable because “it’s about cities when it’s so difficult to travel between towns. No one’s asking, how do you get from Oldham to Stockport on public transport?”

Apprenticeships are a crucial factor in improving opportunities and the economic life of towns, he adds. “If done well, apprenticeships help businesses improve productivity and that’s the key challenge in British economy, it has been for 20 years.

“You get more skilled people and it is also a huge game changer for that individual’s life chances and prosperity. Right because they then get into a career, which is more than just a job.”

But the apprenticeship system needs improvement, he adds. “It’s seen as a tax, not as a lever you can draw back from, so it can disincentivise apprenticeships.

“And the really important point is that is that often apprenticeships are used by big businesses. But what you really wanted apprenticeships in small firms, in towns, and you want to use it to grow businesses.”

This is difficult because apprenticeships involve high overheads; this is solved through a levy match scheme, where apprenticeship funds set aside by big firms but not spent go to SMEs.

Heather Lee, head of HR at Lincolnshire Co-op, also sees her co-op’s training schemes as linked to wider efforts, pointing out that the retailer has been a member Business in the Community, the business outreach charity, for many years.

And Lincolnshire’s training efforts aren’t just about sourcing workers – there is a wider social purpose, she says, to increase local employability. To that end, the co-op is a silver patron of the Princes Trust and also works with Jobcentre Plus and the government’s Kickstart scheme.

“As a community retailer we are physically present in our communities,” she says. “We want the people who live in our communities to be equipped to work in those communities. This helps reduce long commutes and road miles, we want people who are already here.”

A key scheme is Get Into Retail, run by Lincolnshire with the Princes Trust. This offers young people employability workshops, giving them the skills and experience they need for a career; it is open to applicants aged 16 -30 who are unemployed and looking for work in retail.

The co-op works with Jobcentre Plus to find people who are immediately available for work and through the scheme, 91 have signed up for skills sessions, training and work experience.

“Following that 57 have joined us as employees,” says Heather. “They’re not all still with the co-op but that’s not the only consideration – what we’ve given them is a reference, something to put on their CV, something to talk about at interview.”

All the 57 colleagues joined as customer service assistants; nine have gone on to be team leader and three have been doing Level 3  apprenticeships.

The pandemic brought its challenges, forcing the employability projects online “but we were still able to reach out to young people”.

Again, Lincolnshire worked with Kickstarter and Jobcentre Plus, bringing in 21 participants, nine of whom stayed on at the end of the programme, which took them through workplace challenges, people skills and emergency first aid training.

The emphasis has been on youth but recently Lincolnshire has been working on a restart scheme, aimed at people aged 18 or over who are long-term unemployed. “Placements are happening as we speak,” says Heather. “These are people in our communities, using our stores and services; so how do we support them as they get into work if that’s what they want?”

Lincolnshire has always used up its apprenticeship levy fund in full she adds, with 99 apprentices currently working in the business. This can be for career progression or – last year – to redeploy colleagues from the society’s pandemic-hit travel division. “We’ve used apprenticeships to reskill them – with roles in pharmacy, HR, learning and development.”

Lincolnshire has been sharing its good practice at Co-operatives UK events, with presentations from a regional manager who rose through the training process.

“In essence,” says Heather, “We are a bricks and mortar retailer in our community and we want to give people the opportunity to contribute, to help them harness skills for them to help them succeed – if not with us, then with others.”

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