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B&Q: Putting training at the heart

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From a City & Guilds in selling to training in tiling, retail chain B&Q is one employer set on helping to close the skills gap. Verity Gough finds out more.

DIY giant B&Q has earned a reputation for employing older workers, has established over 300 partnerships with local disability groups around the country and is proud of its position as a diversity leader. However, it is its focus on training that has cemented its reputation as key player in plugging the retail skills gap.

DIY school

With the retail having taken its place as the largest private sector employer in the UK, providing one in ten people with jobs, yet despite the credit crunch, it is expected to continue to grow with over 250,000 new jobs expected to be created within the UK by 2014.

However, it is always heartening to hear of an employer that is dedicated to improving the skills of its staff - and B&Q is perhaps the leading example of this. In fact, aside from its 'good work' within the local community and its highly praised employment policies, the icing on the cake is perhaps the recent announcement of a £2 million training academy set to launch this month. The new venture aims to train staff in home improvements in order to provide a better service to customers with the ambitious plans aiming to see up to 4,000 staff pass through the Academy’s doors.

Training will be focused on all aspects of home-improvement from designing a kitchen to tiling the bathroom and will take place in-store and at 13 regional centres. In addition, staff will receive a City & Guilds-approved qualification.

In fact B&Q has another feather in its training cap - the accolade of being the first retailer in the UK to offer a nationally recognised Home Improvement Qualification. "We have made a massive investment in training, which is our major people activity for this year, and we have made sure that this is open to everyone,” says B&Q’s diversity and engagement advisor, Leon Foster-Hill. We have got the apprenticeship scheme, the NVQ in retail and we have also got the home improvement knowledge qualification, which is a City & Guilds qualification."

The new qualification - which is part of governmental reform to enables businesses to turn their in-house training into national qualifications - has been accredited by awarding body City & Guilds. B&Q is set to pilot the new qualification towards the end of 2009 with the aim of training around an eighth of its entire UK workforce. 

Practical skills

According to Rob May, the product manager from the City & Guilds’ specialist consultancy service 'City & Guilds for Business' who are managing the qualifications, the B&Q initiative was spurred by major changes in the training regulatory system implemented by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) last year: "In 2007, the QCA unveiled its plans for a number of groundbreaking ways to recognise good practice from leading employers in the area of training and education," says May. "Unlike some of the other corporates that recently became awarding bodies, B&Q have decided to offer their staff a City & Guilds qualification. They are giving their staff a qualification that they believe represents transferable skills - recognised all over the world- and vocational quality," he explains.

So how is the training delivered? Much like other C&G type qualifications, it can be obtained by following one of four specialised 'routes'; decorating, gardening, building and room solutions. The first element set to launch is decorating and to achieve the qualification employees will need to pass four units aimed at improving their product knowledge and selling skills. 

One of the main strengths of the Home Improvement Qualification is that experienced members of staff will be able to obtain it using their acquired knowledge rather than having to attend courses for the sake of ticking a box and furthermore, everyone will get the chance to attend a one day course on each unit before they are assessed.  This will then be supplemented by B&Q’s existing training programme. "We have an apprenticeship and NVQ scheme and we don’t have any requirements for entry – we have one guy in our Oxford store who is 70 and has just completed an NVQ," adds Foster-Hill.  

The company is clearly committed to raising the skills levels of its employees at all levels and already has a robust company-wide training plan in place for employees regardless of their status within the organisation.  Training ranges from basic skills, through to leadership and management training and can be done on the job, in a classroom or through remote access.  Over the next 12 months the retailer will be helping a third of its workforce gain a City & Guilds NVQ Retails Skills Level 2.

A diverse workforce is a happy workforce

Aside from its new training initatives, B&Q is perhaps known best for its diversity policies in fact a quarter of B&Q’s 34,000-strong workforce is over 50-years-old, and a quarter is under 25. However, whilst they are ahead of the game in being an attractive proposition for the older workforce, they do still face the challenge of Generation Y, with the younger age group coming into work. "There is differing opinion of what they are looking for in the workplace, so the first area we really have to understand is what, if anything, we have to do and we will certainly look to address any challenge," remarks Foster-Hill. But it’s not just about age policies. Foster-Hill says it is important to promote the fact that the company has always been at the forefront in other areas too such as its awareness of equality and future initiatives also include developing its flexible working policies.

"We are open seven days a week, so we have to have flexible people. There is a real opportunity to increase the level of uptake of those policies across the whole workforce, particularly up the grades." Foster-Hill concludes that the company will continue to invest in its entire workforce, without excluding anyone. "I spend a lot of my time ensuring that in all the projects we have that are to do with our people, diversity runs through the heart of them. Our workforce is diverse and we continue to encourage more diversity. If you were to ask why, then I would say, 'why not'? It is part of our DNA. It wouldn’t be B&Q if we suddenly stopped."

Are you responsible for learning and development/training intiatives in large retail organisations? If so we would love to hear your success stories. Email [email protected].

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