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Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Copyright © 2012, Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Up-skilling on a large scale at Phones 4u
Article Type: HR at work From: Strategic HR Review, Volume 11, Issue 5
Short case studies and research papers that demonstrate best practice in HR
Nicola Eldershaw and Eric GresswellNicola Eldershaw is based at Phones4u. Eric Gresswell is based at Elmfield Training Ltd.
Phones 4u is one of the UK’s leading high-street mobile phone retailers, renowned for its ability to appeal to the younger demographic – both customers and colleagues. A by-product of this strength is relatively high labor turnover among the retail workforce. Four years ago the company decided to take active steps to reduce this.
A strategic and inclusive approach
Employees working in retail tend to have few formal qualifications beyond GCSE level. In 2007 Phones4u signed the UK government’s Skills Pledge, committing the business to support all colleagues in achieving a Level 2 accredited qualification, and started an ambitious project to support the retail teams through nationally recognized vocational training.
With over 3,000 retail employees, this was no easy task. But Phones4u felt passionately about providing training to help the retail teams in their day-to-day jobs, while at the same time giving them a qualification that recognized the skills developed in their role. So the whole team approached the project with gusto.
The company was clear that the learning needed to benefit the business as well as the individual. Careful steps were taken to align the new program closely with the organization’s overall vision and aims – to maximize performance through “delighting the customer.”
A partnership approach
Phones4u believes in developing talent already existing in the business. For this reason, the project team was eager to provide opportunities for learners to develop the key skills of numeracy and literacy, enabling them to progress their careers in a fast-paced environment.
When looking for a partner to help achieve its ambitious goals, Phones4u was impressed by Elmfield Training’s ability to create a program aligned to the business vision and aims. It helped that Elmfield understood the technology retail marketplace and had previous experience in the industry. Elmfield’s ability to deliver a quality program on a large scale was also a key factor.
In the start-up phase of the partnership Elmfield spent a considerable amount of time immersing itself within Phones4u. This meant that it fully understood the ethos of the business and was able to develop a relevant, well-designed program, entirely avoiding the trap of imposing pre-existing training modules not properly aligned to the business vision.
Delivering a flexible and tailored program
Following all this intensive early development, a robust program was produced in which all employees had the opportunity to achieve a Level 2 Sales Apprenticeship, combining the development of both vocational skills and key skills in literacy and numeracy. Once employees complete the Level 2 Sales Apprenticeship they are given the choice to progress to a Level 3 Apprenticeship in customer service.
The program for existing retail colleagues was so successful that Phones4u decided to embed the program into the induction program completed by all new starters joining the business. A major hallmark of the Apprenticeship program offered by Phones4u and Elmfield is the Academy at Fort Dunlop near Birmingham. This is an industry-leading, first-class learning environment offering state of the art technology and interactive and engaging methods of development. All learners begin their journey with a week’s intensive learning at the Academy before returning to store to apply and develop their skills.
To further improve the balance between work and study for learners and their managers, Phones4u has created an innovative online learning platform as a simulation of the Academy at Fort Dunlop. Learners “walk round” the virtual Academy once they are back in store to access support and information to help them complete their Apprenticeship.
Turnover down and career perception up
During 2007/08 more than 3,000 existing members of the Phones4u retail team completed their Level 2 Apprenticeship in sales. In total, 4,327 employees have now achieved the qualification, equating to around 98 percent of the retail team. Since the program started labor turnover at Phones4u has decreased steadily and continues to do so, a sign that employees now view their time with Phones4u as a career choice as opposed to merely a job.
Learners consistently say they love the opportunity to gain qualifications that develop and recognize their skills. Many of those who achieve their Level 2 go on to complete their level 3. For individuals who may have to deal with learning-related challenges, one-to-one assistance is provided so that everyone gets the best possible chance to succeed.
Aspects of the sales roles require a certain level of application of number and communication skills, from calculating tariffs and bills to explaining the legalities around a contract. For this reason Phones4u is especially keen to develop the team’s abilities in numeracy and literacy. Some learners are put off the idea after bad experiences at school. Elmfield’s key skills trainers overcome this challenge by linking the learning to everyday store scenarios, breaking the cycle and allowing the learner to focus completely on developing their skills.
Factors for success
When undertaking an accredited apprenticeship program across a national business with multiple locations, selecting the right training partner is key. On this scale it is important that the training provision is seen as a partnership by training managers within the organization and the outsourced provider.
Rather than just handing all responsibility for delivery and strategy over to the training provider, Phones4u actively sought a close working partnership with Elmfield Training from the very start, giving it close involvement at both operational and strategic level. Working together in this way means that both sides are better able to share ideas and listen to suggestions for improving the program. A great benefit of the partnership with Elmfield is that the training can easily be updated and adapted to meet the needs of learners and the business.
To ensure that knowledge of the companies they support remains strong and up-to-date, Elmfield trainers are assigned solely to one organization. Trainers working with Phones4u are dedicated to the company and develop a real understanding of the internal and external drivers behind the program. Four of Elmfield’s training team report directly to the Phones4u Apprenticeship training manager to ensure the learning provided is completely aligned to the needs of the business. Likewise, learners attending key skills development see the trainers as part of the team at Phones4u.
Trust is essential to the partnership, as well as an understanding of each other’s objectives and visions. For a private company such as Phones4u there can be a cultural gap when introducing publicly funded qualifications like Apprenticeships into the workplace. By building a strong understanding of Phones4u’s market, vision and operational objectives Elmfield was able to bridge this gap and introduce the qualification seamlessly into the induction process.
Expanding the program further
Phones 4u remains fully committed to offering Level 2 qualifications to members of the retail team that do not possess this, or an equivalent value qualification, as soon as they join the company. With this learning program now well integrated into the internal learning mechanisms of the organization, Phones4u and Elmfield are working together to expand the offering to employees across the organization. One exciting area on the agenda going forward is an expansion of the higher level qualifications program to ensure that employees can continue their development and career progression by staying with Phones4u.
About the authors
Nicola Eldershaw is Apprenticeship Training Manager, Phones4u. After studying A Level sociology and psychology she left the traditional educational system for the world of work, joining Phones4u’s HR team in 2002. She then joined the L&D function in 2005 and has spent time working within all aspects of the learning cycle. Most recently she was asked to lead the apprenticeship offerings within the company. She is an associate member of CIPD. Nicola Eldershaw can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Eric Gresswell is Client Development Director, Elmfield Training Ltd. He has been an HR practitioner within large commercial organizations for 13 years. Before joining Elmfield Training in 2011, he spent six years as head of L&D and recruitment at Phones4u. Prior to that he was a management development consultant at BskyB. Eric Gresswell can be contacted at: EricGresswell@elmfieldtraining.com