Good businesses know the value of providing good progression routes and quality training

The retail and hospitality industries can play a key role in addressing in-work poverty, says Louise Woodruff.

There are 7.5 million people working in the retail and hospitality sectors in the UK. Many families have a family member working in one of these sectors. These businesses, both large and small, are at the heart of many communities and in some places form the main source of local jobs. Yet we know these sectors face a number of real challenges to ensure that job quality and prospects improve for the many people working in them, especially for the high proportion of employees who are low paid.

How will these jobs change in the future and what does that mean for employees’ skills? Delegates at the national Better jobs, better business conference in Leeds today have been discussing just that.

Employers need to work closely with education providers such as local colleges to design training that really meets the needs of local businesses both now and in the future. There is a real challenge for small businesses to deliver on this agenda and they need additional support in areas such as HR.

Making this work locally is essential and there is real potential for Local Enterprise Partnerships to lead on this. Whereas focus is often placed on skills shortages at the high end of the labour market, what we also need is a focus on skills development for lower-paid work. We need to also be training for the jobs of the future. The panellists discussed how digital and automation are going to change those jobs: with a much greater focus on quality time with customers and digital knowledge.

Helen Dickenson, from the British Retail Consortium, speaking about the changing demands faced by employees in the retail sector, highlighted that “technology and investment in digital is fundamentally changing the way we shop”.

Although making sure young people have the right skills to enter and progress in these sectors is very important, skills development and training should take place throughout working lives. Research from the British Retail Consortium (BRC) highlights the fact that 46% of low-paid employees in retail that are middle aged or older. Good businesses know the value of providing good progression routes and quality training.

Today’s conference showcased a number of innovative approaches. Employers such as EE, Rocco Forte and Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen Cornwall all talked about the work they are doing around skills, hours and progression. It has been exciting to hear about real progress being made.

While today’s event has been a great opportunity to focus on good practice, polling evidence with low-paid employees in low-income households shows there are some real challenges for these sectors, particularly in breaking down the barriers to progression such as shift pattern changes and small rises in pay for extra responsibility. Some employees report receiving no training at all – something that was brought up at today’s conference. There is a real challenge to be able to support this group to develop their skills.

The retail and hospitality sectors have an essential role to play in addressing the UK’s in-work poverty problem, and today’s conference demonstrated an appetite for making that happen.