Jeffrey Foreman was 51 years old when the Canadian-owned steel plant he worked at shut its gates for the last time. Co-Steel, in Sheerness, Kent, ran into financial difficulty in 2012, leaving 350 workers unemployed. Foreman continued working at the blast furnace for a further three years while a new owner was sought, but when that search ended last year he, too, was forced to join the dole queue.

“I did not think I would have problems finding a job. But when I started looking, I realised that there was nothing for anyone my age. In the steelworks, most men were my age, many with families. Some of them had worked there since they had left school. We thought we had a job for life, so redundancy took us all by surprise,” he says.

FWD Skills and Development Awards

Last month, however, Foreman was one of 17 people recognised at the annual Federation of Wholesale Distributors’ (FWD) Skills and Development Awards. Having been referred by the Jobcentre soon after he began claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance, he embarked on a driver’s apprenticeship with wholesaler Palmer and Harvey. Following six months’ training to obtain his Class II licence, Foreman is now a fully qualified HGV delivery driver. But he stresses that he is one of many people desperate for the same opportunity to restart their working lives.

“Retraining has set me up and I have now got a qualification that is transferable – I love it,” he says. “I would like to see more people benefit who are of my age and who have hit a dead-end.”

According to the FWD, there are around 6,000 people carrying out apprenticeships or on training courses in a sector that supports 1.3m jobs – two and a half times as many as supermarket giant Tesco.

“Given the size and importance of skills and development, we think it is really important to support the contribution that’s made by the individuals carrying out apprenticeships,” says FWD chief executive James Bielby, adding that nurturing talent is especially relevant given that wholesale has a disproportionately high number of young employees. “Among our members, around 21% are between 16 and 24, and of the total workforce, more than 9% are doing some kind of apprenticeship or other vocational or work-related qualifications,” he says.

How apprenticeships help Women in Wholesale

One of the individuals who has benefited from the FWD’s own bursary scheme to support skills development is Victoria Garton, also an award winner at last month’s event, which was celebrated with a parliamentary reception at the Palace of Westminster. The organisation’s Fellowship Fund offers up to £2,500 to support individuals, provided that is match-funded by members.

The 29-year-old HR and training advisor from Stockport says that without the money from the FWD and her employer, AG Parfett, she would not have embarked on a master’s degree in human resource management, the results of which she finds out this month.

She adds: “I had been with AG Parfett for a year and had developed in-house training courses, but I want my university qualification to open up many more opportunities. Wholesale is still male-dominated. I really enjoy it, but I would not be able to progress without help.”

What does the Apprenticeship Levy mean for the industry?

However, while apprenticeships and training are pivotal to future-proofing the industry, the Apprenticeship Levy, due to come into force next April, will see employers with annual pay bills of more than £3m required to fund new apprentices, with the size of the investment dependent on the size of the business. As many as three-quarters of the UK’s food and drink wholesalers could be affected, and combined with other pressures, such as the introduction of the National Living Wage, there are fears that this could further affect profitability and future investment.

However, Sue Husband, director of the National Apprenticeship Service and the National Careers Service, calls the levy a “crucial investment tool that will elevate the importance of apprenticeships”.

“It will put apprenticeship funding on a sustainable footing and open doors for more people to improve their technical and professional skills from all backgrounds and across the country,” she says.

Also present at last month’s awards ceremony was Mark Pawsey MP, parliamentary private secretary to the secretary of state for work and pensions. He said: “It is perfectly right that companies that benefit from apprentices should make some contribution to their development.”

Pawsey, a wholesaler of disposable products to the fast-food market before becoming an MP in 2010, went on to praise this year’s award winners, recognising the value they bring to the sector.

“I have seen the wholesale sector grow and grow and I know the value you generate and build for our economy,” he said. “For the individuals involved and for the development of the country as a whole, the completion of an apprenticeship is just as significant as getting a degree, and I am delighted to support these awards, which recognise this.

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Helena Drakakis is a journalist for betterWholesaling. Liaising with some of the leading suppliers and industry experts, she aims to bring wholesalers the best advice, latest news and inspiration.


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