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Specsavers case study

A strategic approach to skilling up for the future: Specsavers

Specsavers has used the introduction of the apprenticeship levy to review its approach and further invest in its people

Specsavers, which employs 32,500 people across 1,978 stores around the world, has been delivering apprenticeships since 2013. As an employer-provider, it primarily delivers apprenticeships in its areas of expertise: optical assistants (level 2) and spectacle makers (level 3). Typically, there are 350 apprentices on programmes at any given time.

The introduction of the apprenticeship levy in 2017 has provided the opportunity for Specsavers to accelerate its apprenticeships agenda. When it was introduced, Specsavers completely reviewed its use of apprenticeships and the strategic opportunity presented by the reforms. “We have skills shortages and re-skilling needs across our business and decided to invest further in apprenticeships to help equip our people with required skills,” explains Guy Kidd, National Apprenticeships Business Partner, People and Organisation.

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It positioned apprenticeships as a dedicated team within its global people and organisation function and increased the breadth and volume of apprenticeships across the whole business, with new apprenticeships at advanced, higher, degree and masters levels. It has around 525 apprentices on programmes from level 2 to level 7 and in February 2019 will have initiated 1,550 apprentices.

Kidd explains that the programmes are designed to build strong knowledge, skills and behaviours into its teams. “It’s so important for our colleagues to be well-trained and confident in their abilities, so they can provide the right level of care to our customers and patients,” he says.

Further study after apprenticeships

Specsavers has almost a 50/50 mix of 16-18-year-old and 19-plus apprentices on its programmes, many of whom have no experience of the workplace. Both the optical assistant and spectacle maker are springboard programmes, with a high proportion (80 per cent) of apprentices going on to further study. “The ability to provide further development and career progression is a key factor in all of our programmes,” says Kidd.

Where Specsavers is the subject matter expert – optical training – it delivers to the business and contextualises the training. Where it isn’t, it partners with a small number of external providers. This includes in areas such as finance, marketing and procurement for support office, manufacturing and distribution roles. “We have our own internal quality and partnering processes for meeting with our training partners regularly and we all review where we all are against the Big Apprenticeship Promise,” says Kidd. “So far it’s working really well.”

It has around 170 of these apprentices on programmes ranging from the level 2 foundation programmes to level 7 masters degrees. “We are now starting to see apprenticeships emerging as part of career development routes across many functional areas, so not just for new hires, but also for existing colleagues. In areas such as IT and finance we are starting to see progression from level 3 and level 4 programmes to level 6 and 7 degree and masters programmes,” he says.

Kidd describes 2018 as “an exciting time” as the organisation saw its first apprenticeship cohort of future retail leaders joining the business. “We are hoping that we will see this activity continue over the coming years and plans are already underway for the 2019 cohort,” he says.

Need for digital skills

Alongside optometry, Specsavers describes its skills and talent challenges as not dissimilar to many organisations today, citing leadership, digital skills and IT as the hotspots and apprenticeships are helping to address these.

Employers shouldn’t see it as a “quick fix” though, stresses Kidd. “It’s a slow burn over a period of years, but the results are fantastic. The level of knowledge far exceeds that which would come from the external market, as much of what we do is specific to us. You can’t learn it anywhere else. In terms of engagement and commitment it’s an incredible picture: our apprentices really understand the business.”

For the optical sector, apprenticeship products are slow to come to market and Kidd says the organisation faces a range of challenges in terms of competing priorities, qualification systems, delivery models, frameworks versus standards and levy utilisation across the devolved nations. “We’re working with others to overcome some of this, but it’s complex,” he says.

In terms of what the organisation looks for in an apprentice, Kidd says there is no magic ingredient but a genuine interest in the role they are training for, combined with the willingness and enthusiasm to learn, really helps. “Some people think apprenticeships are an easy option; they’re not,” he says. “Apprentices need to be able to work hard to learn their new role and keep up with their study. Most of our teams work closely together, so being able to work with others and share experiences help people get the most from their apprenticeship. It’s fantastic that where we have apprentices, people are so generous with their time to help others learn. There’s a definite sense of shared pride that colleagues have in their apprentices.”

Recruiting managers are starting to understand and embrace the opportunities that apprenticeships bring to their teams. “We have areas that specifically bring apprentices into the business as part of their talent pipeline; it’s been a challenge due to the ‘slow burn’ nature of apprenticeships, but where we’ve been using this approach for a while, I don’t think managers would now do anything else,” says Kidd.

It is still early days to have accurate measures of success and effectiveness but Kidd says the programme has high levels of engagement and brings retention benefits with most apprentices deciding to go on to further study with Specsavers. Specsavers is also starting to see apprentices taking on responsibilities earlier and career pathways are becoming more defined. Many of the higher level apprenticeships are three-plus years in duration, so progress of these is still being monitored.

“The profile of apprenticeships is building all the time, with more and more people understanding the opportunity and how they work. For us it’s all about quality of training and quality of experience for the apprentice.”