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After Debenhams and Arcadia what is the future for retail workers?

We asked our Ride Out Recession Alliance partners how we create sustainable careers to replace the devastating Covid-19 high-street job losses
The Arcadia Group, which includes Topshop, and Denbenhams are both facing collapse putting 25,000 jobs at risk Credit: Magnus D/Flickr

Life may have returned to England’s high streets following the national lockdown but while it was good news for some, a dark shadow fell over retail.

The collapse of the retail giant Arcadia Group, followed swiftly by the expected fall of veteran fixture Debenhams, placed 25,000 jobs at risk. To put this in some context, official government figures show the total number of jobs in UK fishing fleets is 12,000.

As attention turns to identifying who is to blame for the high-street retail catastrophe, one thing is certain – thousands of households face a bleak Christmas and new year.

Without counting the massive number of people at risk from this double hit or the 1,500 who may see their job at ailing Bonmarche disappear, hundreds of thousands of people have so far lost their jobs due to Covid.

The help for these people working in retail, whose future has been hammered through no fault of their own, must accelerate.

The Big Issue’s Ride Out Recession Alliance (RORA) has been working to find ways to keep people in their homes and in jobs, or to retrain for new careers. This week the question is simple – what can we do for these people?

We asked our RORA partners to tell us what help is on offer.

‘With retail roles drying up, apprenticeships can step up’

The National Skills Agency specialises in apprenticeships. Managing director Spencer Mehlman is a firm believer that learning new skills on the job offers a way out of the Covid-19 employment crisis.

Ministers in Westminster and Holyrood are inclined to agree. Both the UK and Scottish governments have offered businesses cash incentives to take on apprentices.

Mehlman says that the incentives must keep coming to allow a new path into work for workers who relied on retail to gain experience.

He said: “The problem with losing Arcadia, Debenhams and others is not just mass unemployment and big empty shops. For young people, in particular, a lot of those big retailers were often the first stepping point into a career. The more they disappear, the harder it’s going to become for young people to get that foothold and that experience.

“The only way to push back and fight against that is by trying to encourage more business owners to embrace apprenticeships. The UK government has put lots of incentives out there to encourage businesses to take on apprentices. That needs even more incentives and even bigger pushes because the last thing that we need is thousands of young people hanging around on street corners with nothing to do and feeling disenfranchised.

“Apprenticeships now cover hundreds of sectors – virtually everything you can think of. You can become an accountant or a solicitor through an apprenticeship scheme, it’s not just plumbers and hairdressers any more. That’s going to be the way forward for a lot of young people, particularly as these big retailers are losing traction and the opportunities are drying up.

“Apprenticeships aren’t governed by age, you can be an apprentice at any age now. There’s an element of reskilling and moving into a new sector.

“There is a shortage throughout the UK of people in the digital and IT community, there’s a real need for more support staff and developers as well as cyber security. Doing an IT apprenticeship will help you futureproof your skills somewhat. And it’s the same with logistics and warehousing – that sector is always very busy and looking for staff. I think green technology and carbon-neutral roles are also going to come to the fore.

“We are seeing a change in the economy, and it is about identifying areas where there is a skills shortage. It’s about futureproofing and having an eye on areas that people are moving towards. Although I appreciate for people who are later in their careers that adjustment is going to be harder.”

‘Employers must be open to hiring people who have been homeless’

Radical Recruit helps people put homelessness behind them to secure employment.

They’ve already seen a shift in the people they have been supporting throughout the pandemic. Previously tasked with finding work to help people out of long-term homelessness, the impact of Covid-19 has seen a shift to supporting people who have lost work and fallen into homelessness over the last few months.

Emma Freivogel, Radical Recruit founder, said: “The tens of thousands of people about to lose their retail jobs will be competing with those who’ve already lost jobs in the hospitality and leisure sectors.

“We’re currently working with 500 people who were made homeless both before and during the Covid crisis: we help them to realise their skills, build their confidence and get them work-ready, we then introduce them to employers. We already have a waiting list of people who need our support to get back into the labour market and know this list is only going to grow.

“Our fear though, is that even with the possibility of retraining, there simply won’t be enough vacancies around for the large numbers of newly jobless we’re about to see, likely resulting in even more homelessness. We need to see an extension of the eviction ban and of mortgage payment holidays as well as seeing many more employers willing to challenge negative misconceptions around hiring people who have experienced homelessness.”

‘Help young people understand where their skills are and how to transfer them’

Youth employment charity Movement to Work (MTW) breaks the ‘no experience, no job’ Catch-22 scenario that many young people face as they try to get into the world of work – the impact on the retail and hospitality sectors is putting that to the test.

Movement to Work CEO Sam Olsen said: “We have been encouraged by the Chancellor’s ‘plan for jobs’, however, we need to see the promotion, continuation and expansion of government-backed incentives to support employers during these tough times – it’s hard to ask employers to do more when they are already struggling.

“We’ve already seen worrying effects on youth mental health and self-esteem as a result of the lack of stability and the lack of opportunities in the current job market. There is clear evidence that prolonged spells of unemployment, particularly while young, can cause long-lasting ‘scars’ on an individual’s future earnings, employment prospects and health and wellbeing.

“Now, more than ever, we need to provide young people with the support to thrive at work and acknowledge their vital role in our economic recovery. Young people who are struggling due to their industries being under strain need to be supported to re-skill and/or understand the value of their existing skills and how to transfer them.

“Employers need to be sensitive to CVs coming from other failing sectors and be more flexible with considering these applicants.”

‘Give start-ups the chance to restart the economy’

E2Exchange helps entrepreneurs with big ideas to flourish and insists that young, entrepreneurial, job-creating start-ups will be the stimulus for Covid recovery.

E2E wants to see the government’s Levelling Up Fund used in conjunction with schools and universities to upskill youngsters and promote apprenticeships, much in the vein of efforts in Sweden.

Shalini Khemka, E2E chief executive, said: “Right now, we would encourage the government to introduce an end-to-end transition service that finds jobs for those in the most at-risk sectors and make transparent all of the vacancies available across the UK. The Swedish Job Security Councils are potentially a good model for the UK to follow.”

‘We must all play our part to open up these opportunities to everyone’

Social business Catch22 aims to build resilience and aspiration throughout communities across the UK.

They are urging the government to make their Kickstart Scheme, which gives employers funding to create job placements for 16 to 24-year-olds on Universal Credit, a long-term project capable of creating sustainable careers.

Victoria Head, Catch22 director of employability and skills, said:  “While people need to be willing to look at roles in other industries, employers must be open to looking beyond their traditional talent pool. They need to show a willingness to take on people who have good experience and enthusiasm, but possibly not the traditional qualifications required for certain roles. Those with years of experience may need some upskilling in digital skills for example, but by valuing their transferable skills, employers will find motivated and loyal staff.

“Jobs are being created but in quite different industries to those many young people have traditionally relied on. Significant growth is occurring in some industries, and therefore there are the jobs – tech, energy and construction are just some examples. But we must all play our part to open up these opportunities to everyone.”

The Big Issue’s Ride Out Recession Alliance is bringing together charities, businesses and campaigners to protect jobs and prevent homelessness. You can keep track of the campaign by heading to bigissue.com/rora to sign up to receive a weekly newsletter or join the new RORA Facebook group. And don’t forget to tell us your ideas of how to protect jobs and boost the Covid-19 recovery at rora@bigissue.com.