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With more than three decades of history behind it, Specsavers is the UK’s largest and most successful optician chain. But it is also a shining example of how a big business can think small – and how using the apprenticeship levy to gain a strategic advantage turns it from a ‘tax’ to a transformative tool.

The business is still owned by its founding family and likes to emphasise its engagement efforts. But the advent of the levy also presented it with both a challenge and a growth opportunity.

Specsavers had delivered apprenticeships as an employer since 2013, but the introduction of the levy in 2017 saw its investment in this area ramped up.

Specsavers developed and became sole provider for the advanced apprenticeship in spectacle making, which the company sees as an opportunity for both male and female apprentices to learn a highly skilled role.

It also strategically positioned apprenticeships as a dedicated team within its global people and organisation function to increase the scope and volume of their apprenticeships across the whole of the business – from the back office to new advanced, higher and degree level roles.

The apprentice recruitment team ensured a positive recruitment process, in addition to encouraging and supporting diversity within the programme. In fact, it recruited many apprentices from diverse ethnic and social backgrounds – with three in ten (30 per cent) Specsavers apprentices coming from disadvantaged postcodes, according to the Office for National Statistics. A dedicated buddy role ensured that all apprentices had a close circle of support and mentoring throughout the programme.

Specsavers worked with external training providers to deliver higher and degree apprenticeships as a viable alternative to a traditional full-time degree, in particular launching digital and technology apprenticeships in partnership with Solent University.

Participants benefited from the combination of paid work experience, the intellectual challenges of a degree and the support of an apprenticeship. The judges considered this a fantastic example of a higher level apprenticeship that provided a practical alternative to university for young people.

But the judges weren’t the only ones impressed by Specsavers’ programme. Ofsted rated its Level 2 and 3 apprenticeship programmes as the highest quality in the retail optical sector, and the effectiveness for apprenticeships was rated as ‘Good’ across the board.

Today, Specsavers trains more than 400 apprentices from Level 2 - 6, and welcomed its 1,000th apprentice to the scheme in February 2018.

The judges thought the breath of opportunity and strong alignment with learning and development was a “very impressive” employee offer, and the success of the apprenticeship programme has certainly had a positive impact on the company as a whole.

A majority (90 per cent) of apprentices remained employed at Specsavers after the programme ended, and almost two-thirds (65 per cent) of those who stayed with the company went on to further learning, including professional, clinical qualifications. Indeed, many current store managers and opticians began as apprentices.

Additionally, 90 per cent of stores who employed an apprentice said they would happily do so again. This can best be summed up by Stuart Ingleby, partner at the Specsavers store in Blackburn, who said the programme was an “excellent way of developing people and adding value to our business”.

“We’ve had apprentices for a number of years,” Ingleby said. “You have to give them the time to do the studying; the more you put in, the more you get out. You get excellent results, and I can’t recommend it highly enough to people.”

The judges agreed with Ingleby’s assessment. They thought there was clear evidence showing the positive impact of the programme on both the business and their people. Spacsavers’ strong investment over the levy money, alongside additional functional English and maths, showed commitment to the programme throughout the business.

The launch of new management apprenticeship in May 2018 promises to transform team players in stores into future team managers. But most of all, Specsavers has embraced the opportunity afforded by apprenticeships by integrating them into every part of the business and treating them as a way of guaranteeing a pipeline of talent into the future. You could say, in fact, that their vision has been perfect.

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