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At M&S, we know what is possible when employers invest in skills. Take our Marks & Start’ programme with the Prince’s Trust, - just one of the multiple training schemes we operate alongside School Leavers, Graduates and around 400 annual apprenticeship places. Since 2014, Marks & Start has helped to kickstart careers for 10,000 young people facing barriers to the workplace and over 80% of those competing the scheme have gained further work with M&S. 

Today we are marking that milestone with a parliamentary reception, but the celebration is bittersweet, as we know we could create even more employment opportunities if we were not hamstrung by our inability to access the funds, we contribute to the Apprenticeship Levy and its ‘one size fits all’ approach to implementation.

We are absolutely behind the Levy’s founding ambition to give major employers a greater role in addressing the UK’s skills shortage. Retail is the UK’s largest private sector employer – M&S alone employs over 70,000 people - and its longstanding ability to create nationwide job opportunities that nurture critical skills, such as service and teamwork, makes me proud to be a shopkeeper. Today, the need to build a future pipeline is more pressing than ever, as the UK labour force has contracted [1.6% since 2020] and the pressures of growing shortages are being felt in every sector and in every part of the country. 

The current structure of the Levy is holding employers, like us, back from fulfilling our potential in addressing this mounting challenge. As it stands, M&S contributes over £5million to the Levy each year but restrictive rules and benchmarks for accessing these funds means we can only retrieve and make use of around 25% of that in terms of our spending on skills. We know this is a recurring pattern amongst our larger supplier partners too. 

Encouragingly, the first step in reform has been taken, with government’s pledge to imminently review the Levy and make it work better for employers. Getting that right, could transform the skills framework across the UK at a time when we need it most.

Making it work better, means business and government working together to achieve two fundamental changes. Firstly, giving business better access and ability to use funds to help them grow their apprentice schemes sustainably. Each year less and less young people look at higher education pathways as an option for their future, flexible and resilient skills development schemes are vital to those making these choices.

We need to work to break down barriers for young people looking for an alternative to higher education or are disadvantaged in their job hunt. Allowing funds to be used to raise awareness of opportunities available within the sector, provide taster sessions to potential employees (i.e. cover salary cost for a day’s work or mini-Kickstart programmes) and allowing employers to use the levy to fund additional hours whilst apprentices are in training would be a huge leap towards achieving this goal and delivering on the governments own levelling up agenda. 

Additionally, working with the sector will allow employers to use their experience to design courses and apprenticeships that are fit for purpose addressing specific skills deficits across the UK. Flexibility on how training is delivered is crucial part of this model, the current levy requires 20% classroom training which is not practical in retail. Our Marks and Start programme has already seen success through offering on the job training offering action orientated learning as an alternative to in classroom teaching providing a more fulfilling and beneficial training scheme for colleagues. 

Looking to the future allowing funds to be used for “Bootcamp” style learning offering shorter skills programmes on digital or data skills could transform training in retail, this could protect the industry from falling behind preparing the workforce for the skill of tomorrow, not just today. 

With a few simple changes, the apprenticeship levy could be a gamechanger for the future of the UK work force. Let’s act now so it can fulfil its potential.

Sacha Berendji, Operations Director at Marks and Spencer

Notes to Editors