Deep in the inner sanctum of Specsavers’ HR hub, a few miles outside Southampton, a minor kerfuffle is afoot. Nobody, it seems, has any glasses with which to publicise their product range for People Management’s photo shoot. Some of the five members of the HR team on hand don’t even wear them.
Imperfect vision isn’t a prerequisite for working at the UK’s biggest optical chain. But an appreciation of people certainly is. “We’re a very human-centred organisation,” says Mark Corden, the business’s head of apprenticeships. “You can see it in everything we do – from the amount of continuing professional development to the activity we undertake with our clinical staff.”
More than 30 years old and still family owned, Specsavers’ investment in people is a given. But when the apprenticeship levy was announced in 2016, a familiar internal dilemma unfolded over whether to spend the funds or write them off. The business’s eventual decision to embrace the concept would begin an adventure that transformed almost every aspect of its operations and brought it both the Best apprenticeship scheme and coveted Overall winner prizes at this year’s CIPD People Management Awards.
Specsavers began delivering apprenticeships in 2013 but viewed the levy initially as “punitive”, Corden admits. After listening to the business and identifying the areas where apprentices could solve genuine skills shortages, however, that mindset shifted: “We have moved on to really embedding apprenticeships as both a way to onboard and develop people from outside the sector and a way to grow new skills. We have used levy-funded activity to bring individuals into roles we wouldn’t have looked at previously.”
Judges were wowed by the way the business viewed apprenticeships as an organic solution it could embed across every area of operations. It has built a dedicated team, led by Corden, which selects the most appropriate delivery model for different disciplines: it means almost 300 apprentices are training to be optical assistants across Specsavers’ 900 stores. A management development programme has become a management apprenticeship. And apprentices are also working in accountancy, digital, property and project management, benefiting from partnerships with external education providers.
Most ambitiously, Specsavers developed an apprenticeship in spectacle-making, which enabled it to share the scarce skills of its expert internal manufacturers with a new generation. “We cannot go and find sufficient individuals in the marketplace who are competent and capable of filling roles we have here [in manufacturing],” says Corden. “Apprenticeships give us a way to find those skills.”
Communicating the benefits of apprenticeships to the business, he adds, has created a virtuous circle. A dedicated campaign of videos from managers who appreciate an influx of fresh talent stimulates demand and creates advocacy. Even better, the concept provably works: the overwhelming majority of Specsavers’ apprentices study at a higher level and 90 per cent are retained at the end of their studies. Almost two-thirds (65 per cent) go on to either store management or further qualifications. Their engagement levels are quantifiable, and the entire apprenticeship programme has been judged the best in its sector by Ofsted.
Even so, funding such an undertaking is expensive. Corden says the company has made a “significant six-figure investment” on top of its levy funding to pay for the administration and expertise required to deliver apprenticeships, and to make up shortfalls in what funding bodies will contribute towards the cost of courses.
That is not, he admits, a path every business will be able to follow, and the arguments around how funding should best be used are nuanced. But when, after Specsavers recruited its 1,000th apprentice, the business’s co-CEO, John Perkins, brought a new apprentice onto the stage to close its annual conference, the message was clear: what began as a financial obligation has become a way of life.
Who won the rest of the awards? Read the full list of winners to find out.