Age is Top Concern for UK’s Retailers

Retail giants discuss sector’s key skills issues at Skillsmart Retail conference.

The three burning issues being faced by the UK economy were discussed by some of the country’s biggest retailers at the annual Skillsmart Retail Employer Conference this week, entitled Increasing competitive advantage through people.

Representatives from John Lewis Partnership, Morrisons, ASDA, Debenhams and B&Q (which together total 16% of the UK retail workforce) came together on Wednesday, 8th September at London’s Grosvenor House Hotel, to discuss how their companies are focusing on skills and training to help address the three age-related issues that have hit the headlines in recent months.

  1. Morrisons’ HR Director Norman Pickavance revealed how the supermarket’s decision to ensure it will give vocational qualifications to 100,000 employees by next year comes at a time when university places are at a premium and young people are being encouraged to look to other options
  2. With youth unemployment showing no sign of abating, ASDA’s Retail People Director Sarah Dickins, discussed how the retail giant is proactively seeking to tackle youth unemployment through looking at strategy, business benefits and impact
  3. B&Q’s HR Director Liz Bell shared how the world’s fourth largest DIY and home improvement business already has a tried and tested approach to employing people who want to work longer

Liz Bell of B&Q said:

“Back in 1989 when we started thinking about hiring older workers, we wanted to access a talent pool we hadn’t tapped into and found quite a lot of prejudice at the time. Older people are not just working longer for the money; it’s about not wanting to hang up your boots at 65.”

“The challenge now is to maintain that pioneering stance and we believe learning and development is a way to do that. The oldest apprentice is 70 and the youngest 16. We think that is a fantastic achievement.”

“It’s about creating a great place to work and reflecting the customer base. We want equality. We want to reflect our community.”

Skillsmart Retail also secured the attendance of two of retail’s most influential leaders. John Lewis Partnership Chairman Charlie Mayfield and Ian Cheshire, CEO of Kingfisher Group, both spoke passionately about how retailers must keep investing in skills to develop the workforce of the future and how all retailers should work together for the benefit of the sector.

Charlie Mayfield said:

“We can’t cut our way to once again become a prosperous economy; we can actually only grow our way into that position. There are very few sectors, I think, that are actually truly world-class and the UK retail sector and some of the companies within it absolutely are that.”

“We need to be making the business case for skills. This is not a nice-to-do activity. You need to look at the costs and the opportunities, and you need to craft a business case for doing this.”

Ian Cheshire added:

“Skills is a massive agenda and it is clearly strategically important for all of us. This is about pushing more and better qualified kids into retail and also older people into retail. There are a set of themes that we would all benefit from, on top of which we can all overlay our unique cultures and our unique capabilities.”

“I’d be really calling for us now, through Skillsmart Retail, to set a clear agenda for skills over the next five to ten years and prioritise it, because we won’t be able to afford all of it.”

Anne Seaman, Chief Executive of Skillsmart Retail, finished:

“The subject of age in the workplace, particularly in retail, is something that isn’t going to go away in the near future. With people expressing concern about pensions and the prospect of working longer, hearing for the first time what some of our biggest retailers have to say has been very interesting.”

“Training in the retail sector has historically been focused around 16- to 24-year-olds but I think there is no doubt that all retailers will have to consider extending their training to older employees, perhaps to those in their 50s, 60s and even older.”

Read Skillsmart Retail’s The Age of Retail research.

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