Learning the lessons of apprenticeships – Lookers plans for the future
The Government has lofty ambitions for the number of apprentices it wants to see going into the UK workforce, with a target of three million by 2020.
On a relative basis, though, Lookers is arguably setting its sights even higher. While the numbers might not be that high by any means, the retailer is aiming to not have to recruit outside technicians by the end of the decade.
Instead, it is hoping to rely solely on apprentices trained and mentored through its own scheme.
Because of the wide range of brands that Lookers works with, it is able to place young technician recruits with a number of different manufacturers in different parts of the country. However, the future holds a number of possibilities, with Lookers considering widening the scheme to help solve future management staffing challenges.
The firm has seen a notable rise in the number of apprentices it has taken on in recent years. Following a significant review the annual intake has risen by around 60 a year to its current level of about 320.
According to Steve Maule, Lookers’ head of apprenticeships qualifications, this push has been due in part to the company wanting to make the most of the recently introduced Apprenticeship Levy (see below right), but partly down to needing to address a lack of talent in various locations, which is something that many retailers can relate to.
Despite an efficient recruitment department, the geographical issue is one that is forefront in Lookers’ thinking. However, as Steve says, it is difficult to react quickly to address a specific need in a market where there is a skill shortage so they have had to preempt what will be needed in the coming years. Lookers’ size helps with recruitment, with Steve saying: “They come to us in the large part. The company strategy is around the right brands in the right places.”
If the Lookers’ brand doesn’t entice potential apprentices in, then the car makers can help. “We have a series of partnerships with the manufacturers and they will assist us with recruitment,” he says. “They will apply to JLR, Audi etc and will be redirected to us.
So far there has been no requirement to direct applicants away from the more premium brands towards the mainstream, with Steve saying: “All the brands have their own fan base and a lot of those you can link into F1 and Top Gear and the like – these programmes showcase the brands that are not necessarily premium.
Some of it is geographical, some in the north east are very familiar with Vauxhall for example.”
For those companies without Lookers’ brand and size, there are other ways to approach apprenticeships. Steve points out that, whether you have two BMW franchises or many, the manufacturer will still play the same role regardless. “If you are a small dealer the expectation is the same so it is definitely scalable,” he says.
However, the issue is the levy and whether it would be worth it financially. Another, and possibly more financially worthwhile, option is to form partnerships with a local college that is running a scheme and is after businesses to work with.
The financial investment in an apprentice is not insignificant – some businesses are complaining that the £27,000 maximum spend permitted through the Government scheme is not enough to train up a candidate sufficiently. Ensuring that apprentices don’t decide to leave for a rival after their training has finished could see that investment effectively wasted.
“It is a constant issue that is under review,” says Steve, saying that Lookers goes for the carrot approach, rather than wielding a stick. “We have to give them a clear idea of their career path so they have a clear vision of what will happen after year one, two and three. There are loyalty bonuses that we put in front of them at various points, making sure they are aligned with the brand.”
The company stops short of punitive measures, though, with no repayment schemes in place. “We wouldn’t want to put that in front of a 16-17 year old, the onus is on us to make ourselves attractive,” he explains.
However, he believes that the money saved on bringing in more expensive, fully trained recruits will repay the investment down the line, reckoning that every pound invested will be repaid 20 times over in five to seven years.
YOUR ACTION PLAN
- Look closely at business need – identify where there is a talent shortage or a lack of training
- Do your commercial homework – what is your business in and what does it do
- Monitor the quality and the content within the programmes
- Get involved and don’t subcontract training out to a provider. The people in your business know the business best
What is the apprenticeship levy?
The Government is aiming to boost the number of UK apprentices by three million by 2020, but creating such a large number of new schemes is expensive and the funding has to come from somewhere.
The bill has been passed to bigger businesses, with those with wage bills in excess of £3 million a year liable to pay 0.5% of their annual bill as of April 2017. However, all employers will receive a £15,000 annual allowance to be offset against the levy.
It has faced criticism, with some companies saying that the maximum £27,000 allowed per apprentice isn’t enough to cover training, and some saying the scheme is too complicated.
Schemes like National Apprenticeship Week will hope to encourage uptake in the future, though.