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Featured interview: Revolutionising skills development in the retail sector


The new national sector skills network is being pioneered by five Trailblazer Sector Skills Councils. Among these is Skillsmart, the sector skills council for the retail sector. TrainingZONE talked to Peter McLaren-Kennedy, Head of Communications at Skillsmart, about the state of skills development in retail, and what a sector skills council can do to improve this.

TrainingZONE Can you take us through the process that has brought Skillsmart to this point?

Peter McLaren-Kennedy The history of skills development support organizations has been very patchy, the retail sector being no exception. Although good work has been done in the past, the failure to attract wide employer support has meant that these organizations lacked credibility and in most cases failed to deliver to employer needs.

That history led the British Retail Consortium (BRC) as the lead body to believe the only way forward was for employers to take control and to start with a clean slate. Based on the above belief a bid was prepared by the BRC on behalf of the industry for a trailblazer license, which was granted.

TrainingZONE Why do you think you have made the running among the SSCs?

Peter McLaren-Kennedy There are two main reasons why retail has made the running:

1. Retail is the largest employer with 2.9 million staff (1 in 9 in the UK)

2. Employment in the industry is growing

3. The support of the sector through the BRC

Starting with a clean slate and the strong support of the industry very clearly gives Skillsmart an advantage. It has neither an axe to grind nor is it particularly wedded to any approach or scheme and therefore is able to take a fresh line in developing the skills of the industry. It is therefore able to reflect the industry, responding and delivering to its needs.

Nigel BroomeProbably most important is our approach, which is strongly employer led and strategic - architects, if you like, rather than deliverers.

This is evidenced by the composition of our board and the secondment of Nigel Broome as Chief Executive from Sainsburys, which ensures that we have a stronger employer focus.

TrainingZONE What difference does Skillsmart hope to make to the retail industry?

Peter McLaren-Kennedy We have three primary goals, these are to:

We subscribe to the four main goals of
- Make retail a career of choice, thereby raising the quality and quantity of those seeking employment in the sector

- Improving the quality of the learning supply

- Raising productivity

- Raising skills levels

TrainingZONE What changes do you think need to be made to qualifications in the sector?

Peter McLaren-Kennedy The qualifications framework for retail is not very clear nor very well developed, making it difficult for those looking to follow a career in the industry or further develop their retail related skills. Our primary aim therefore is to ensure clarity and to create clear progression routes, allowing individuals to specialize in retailing or any of its components. To do this we need to develop qualifications that have currency amongst retailers, whilst bringing about improvements through increased flexibility, minimizing bureaucracy and ensuring these are fit for purpose.

TrainingZONE How much of the problem is just about better information? How do you hope to improve that?

Peter McLaren-Kennedy Information has been a problem for retailers, however we aim to change this by becoming the definitive source or knowledge base for skills issues. We will achieve this in part through primary research including benchmarking, secondary research and the sharing of information with trade associations and other key partners.

We are also in the process of creating a strategic vision for the industry together with employers, which should not only give the direction that is needed but also raise awareness and buy in to what we are attempting to achieve.

TrainingZONE What are the challenges about communicating effectively with UK businesses? And retail in particular?

Peter McLaren-Kennedy The greatest difficulty for us is communicating with SMEs, who account for 99.8% of the 300,000 businesses that make up the sector. More than half are family owned or owner managed, as well as being dispersed across every corner of the UK including the most remote areas.

We therefore are putting great emphasis on working with key partners and in particular the Trade Associations who are key in helping us spread the message. We have also introduced a newsletter for SMEs, which has a very strong training slant as well as using trade press and technology to the maximum.

TrainingZONE Do you need different strategies for different sizes of organization?

Peter McLaren-Kennedy The retail sector is particularly diverse not only in terms of the size of the businesses, but also in terms of location and type of business. It is therefore critical to develop different strategies to deal with each sub-sector, given that the issues they face are different as are their needs and the solutions sought. We have also further segmented these to cover those businesses that have an HR or training function and those who do not, the latter requiring greater support.

We have also recruited a field team to work with retailers at a local level, complimenting the work we are doing nationally, ensuring that we not only bring about change nationally but also are able to provide localized support.

TrainingZONE How do you convince employers that this isn't just another government initiative?

Peter McLaren-Kennedy The industry is as to be expected skeptical given the plethora of initiatives in this area in the past and the lack of real support for the sector. There are a number of areas in which can prove that we are different, these include ensuring that:

- We reflect the industry and its needs

- We work with the industry to develop the solutions they want

- That we engage and retain employer support

- Our board relects the industry

- We are not afraid to challenge

- We do the right things not things right

- We are at all times employer led

TrainingZONE Are you confident that you will be able to make real and effective changes to learning provision? How?

Peter McLaren-Kennedy We believe that we will be able to make a real difference, partly because the climate for change is probably more evident than ever before and partly because our approach is different. Good examples of where we are already making a difference include the launch of the Certificate in Retail Skills and the development of the provider network. The former is important in bringing major retailers back into accredited frameworks and the latter in ensuring that the 99.8% of SMEs who make up the retail sector and who rely on external providers, receive high quality retail specific training.

TrainingZONE How are you going to measure success?

We do not necessarily subscribe to the many targets set by government, however in terms of our contract we will be expected to meet some of these. Where we will be looking to make a difference are in the productivity gains within the sector, skills being one of the five drivers of efficiency.

Most importantly the measure of our success will be our ability to deliver to the agenda of retailers.

TrainingZONE What are the next steps?

The most important next step is to secure our full five-year license, without which we will be unable to deliver.

In terms of specific product areas, the following are some of the items that we are busy with:

Qualifications Development and distribution of the “white paper”Sept 03
ResearchSpreading the benchmarking survey to cover SMEsOct 03
Small businessLaunch of the Retail Kite Mark to accredit training providersJune 03
Business DevelopmentRecruitment of the last individuals needed to complete our field team (English regions, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland)June 03
CareersLaunch of the retail helpline and our strategy for making retail a career of choiceSept 03
CommunicationsLaunch of the new Skillsmart website for retailMay 03


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