How M&S is using apprenticeships to unlock ‘millions in untapped value’

Having launched a world first Level 7 apprenticeship in data science and AI for the retail sector, Marks & Spencer firmly believes in the power of apprentices to drive business forward.

M&S digital and data apprentices
Marks & Spencer digital and data apprentices. Source: Marks & Spencer

Back in October’s Autumn Budget, the Chancellor Rishi Sunak promised the UK a £2bn “skills revolution”, with £170m dedicated to apprenticeships and training. The government is pushing vocational training as an alternative route into the workplace, at a time when students are questioning the value of their £9,250 a year degrees.

While some companies are tentatively exploring how to make apprenticeships part of their learning and development strategy, others have already jumped in at the deep end. This latter group includes Marks & Spencer, which this month launched the world’s first data science and AI academy in retail.

The business has been an advocate for apprenticeships since 2018, when it unveiled its ambitions to become a “digital-first retailer”. Working with partners Babington and Decoded, M&S developed a Level 3 data technician and Level 4 data analyst apprenticeship, upskilling 280 colleagues and 500 senior leaders to date.

The retailer has taken this digital skills push to the next level with the introduction of a Level 7 apprenticeship in data science and AI – equivalent to a Master’s degree.

The cohort of 10 employees, which will extend to 14 next month, will be taught cutting-edge data science techniques, spanning modelling, machine learning, automation, optimising business processes and implementing data-driven AI solutions. Teaming up on the Level 7 qualification with partner Cambridge Spark, M&S hopes the 15-month programme will enable the business to unlock “millions of pounds worth of untapped value”.

Upon announcing the Level 7 apprenticeship, M&S saw strong interest from all areas of the business. Of the 10 employees already signed up, the majority are graduates of the Level 4 apprenticeship, in effect creating a data science development programme within M&S.

To date, three marketers have either completed or are still studying in one of the data programmes, spanning the CRM and social media teams. One marketer graduated from the Level 4 programme and was promoted to CRM customer analyst, using the data forecasting skills acquired on the course in her day-to-day work. She is now eligible to join the Level 7 apprenticeship.

I think it’s fair to say we’re not always thought of as at the front of digital and data. We’re trying to change that.

Suzanne Howse, Marks & Spencer

Head of enterprise data Suzanne Howse is excited by the prospect of having a new generation of data scientists in the company who know the M&S business inside out and love the brand.

The retailer sees data science as playing into everything from product design to buying and allocation, store operations and customer interactions, including the Sparks loyalty programme. Howse points out the personalisation algorithms which produce tailored offers for its 13 million Sparks members are powered by data science.

The Level 7 apprenticeship is not only regarded as an exciting development in the retailer’s strategy, it is seen as positioning M&S as an employer of choice for data scientists. The fact apprenticeships offer a new route into the profession is a big bonus.

“How would you know data science is a career until you’ve seen it in action? It’s a wonderful way to help upskill and educate our colleagues,” says Howse.

“M&S as a brand is known for its quality and innovation in terms of our product, but I think it’s fair to say we’re not always thought of as at the front of digital and data. We’re trying to change that, because actually we do a lot of fantastic things and this is one of those examples where we’re showing our customers that we are innovative across the board.”

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All three of the programmes require the apprentices to put their learning into practice to solve real problems, meaning nothing they are taught is simply theoretical. The apprentices are given access to the retailer’s data platforms and asked to address the issues they live and breathe each day.

“That’s how we’ve driven support from our leadership team in the sense they’re seeing that value come straight back, because their fellows are working on the problems that are relevant and causing them challenges, or where they’re seeing untapped value and they’ve never known where to solve it before,” Howse explains. “Now they have the tools.”

The apprenticeships are part of digital and data learning hub Beam Academy, which focuses on giving all 70,000 M&S employees access to new skills.

Incorporating M&S’s data literacy programmes, the Beam Academy shows employees how to automate certain aspects of their daily role in order to focus on innovation. The academy shares its name with Beam, the cloud data platform which houses all the retailer’s analytics and reporting tools.

Making apprenticeships work

The experience of having run two previous apprenticeships meant when it came to the development of the Level 7 qualification, M&S was comfortable with the process.

However, things weren’t always as simple. Back when the brand was embarking on its first apprenticeship in 2018 it felt like a journey into the unknown.

While the M&S culture of investing in people development helped push the idea forward, the challenge came from the focus on data which, certainly pre-Covid, was a cultural shift for a high street retailer.

The timing was good, however, as M&S was in the process of forming a digital and data function led by chief digital and data officer Jeremy Pee, including the newly-appointed head of data science Mehdi Hosseini, and backed by a holistic data strategy. The introduction of the Level 4 qualification was seen as marking a “step-change” in brand behaviour and decision-making across the business.

“Having that senior sponsorship for data, combined with the culture we have in M&S of developing our people, opened the door and made it a little easier for us to land something,” Howse recalls.

Picking a partner was also key. M&S joined forces with apprenticeship provider Decoded on the development of the Level 4 programme. While Decoded managed the governance side, the M&S team worked on evangelising about apprenticeships internally.

M&S DigiFest
M&S CEO Steve Rowe speaking at the retailer’s recent DigiFest conference. Source: M&S

“Having said that it was bumpy. We started this Level 4 when no one else had completed it yet, so we didn’t know what good looked like. Decoded couldn’t tell us success is having X number of people or having this level of grades, or this many people dropping out is good or bad. We were completely blind, so the first cohort was a real test,” Howse explains.

She describes the first cohort of Level 4 data analysts as “pioneers”. The apprentices were given extra support and met with the internal team every month, with Howse taking learnings from the first cohort to feed into the next programme.

“Now we’re at cohort eight and it’s a well-oiled machine, but the first year was bumpy and it took a lot of evangelising out into the business to say: ‘This is 20% of one of your people’s time. That’s a lot of time, but let me explain to you what the value you’re going to get back is’,” she explains.

When it comes to choosing people to get involved in the Level 3 and Level 4 apprenticeships some employees are encouraged to take part, although the opportunity is open to everyone at M&S irrespective of whether they are a customer assistant in-store, a buyer or work in the support centre. The only requirements are that they possess GCSE level English and maths, and are based in the UK.

The requirements to take on the Level 7 apprenticeship are tighter, requiring the participant to have either graduated at Level 4 or possess a university degree equivalent.

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Information about the apprenticeships is spread through internal comms, HR and the learning and development function, as well as open Q&A sessions. The alumni often join these sessions to help bring the apprenticeship to life. They are also invited to speak at the retailer’s annual DigiFest conference and get involved in the biannual Hackathon, alongside talking about their apprenticeships at regular business updates.

“It’s a lot more than just the programme, it’s what we wrap around it to really make them feel special and loved, and that it’s worthwhile. It’s that extra touch that I would encourage other businesses to have and having spoken to a few who have got in touch over the years to ask for a bit of advice, that’s probably the one thing I would always say,” says Howse.

“You can’t just leave it for the partner to run. You need to have someone on your side who is really living and breathing it, and caring about these individuals.”

M&S also joined Future.Now, a not-for-profit coalition of businesses exploring how to close the UK’s digital skills gap. Through Future.Now M&S offers other companies advice on how to introduce apprenticeships and the benefits they bring to the business. The coalition website features a list of apprenticeship partners endorsed by the participating brands, designed to help others find the right collaboration.

Howse also suggests visiting the government apprenticeship website to locate a partner who supports your brand’s culture. It is important to look for the best fit for your industry and to source a partner with proven use cases, which helps communicate the value of apprenticeships to the wider business.

Even if you are the first person in the company who wants to introduce an apprenticeship, that’s as good a start as any, says Howse. Armed with the energy and enthusiasm to move the idea, it was Howse and a few colleagues who saw the potential in the data science apprenticeships. However, she advises finding a sponsor in a leadership position to back the project.

“Just that one person who gets what you’re trying to do. Winning them over is definitely where I’d begin,” she suggests. “Think, who is that individual in the business who would understand and put their name behind trying this?”



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