From education to employment

Breaking down barriers in the Early Careers space

Sharon Blyfield

Sharon Blyfield, Head of Early Careers at Coca-Cola Europacific Partners discusses how we can come together to break down the barriers in the Early Careers space, including functional skills, to increase the apprenticeship completion rate and reach the Government’s targets.

2024 marks a milestone year for Early Careers at Coca-Cola Europacific Partners as we celebrate a decade since the introduction of our company-wide apprenticeship programme. What started as a small cohort of five engineering apprentices has grown to a 177-strong group that spans multi sectors, including Supply Chain, Logistics, Field Sales, Business Administration and Legal. National Apprenticeship Week marks the perfect time to reflect on how far we’ve come, while looking at opportunities for this space to evolve further.

We’ve been on a mission to ensure that early careers opportunities are open to all demographics and backgrounds from day one. The last ten years have been filled with a multitude of learnings and adaptations as we continue to strive towards achieving this goal.

Identifying the barriers within apprenticeships

The UK Government has set a target of a 67% completion rate amongst those that enter an apprenticeship programme. Yet in England the completion rate is 53%. While many factors could play a role in this rate, we’re noticing that functional skills (English and Maths qualifications) can be a significant barrier for many completing apprenticeships, and could be playing a part in this lag.

As a minimum requirement to complete an apprenticeship, learners need to obtain a function skills qualification if they don’t or can’t prove they hold a grade four or equivalent in GCSE Maths and English.

While we recognise the need for assessments of skills, we’ve seen first-hand that lower completion rates for apprenticeships can be traced back to incomplete functional skills requirements. It’s often that the exams required are not relevant for the role apprentices are training for, and many have called for functional skills to be removed from the curriculum.

I’ve been speaking to MPs and industry leaders about the need for change and discuss potential amendments to the current process too. There could be great benefit in removing or contextualising Maths in particular to align it to the apprenticeship sector that the candidate is undertaking. We could also consider options where candidates can access funding to complete their English and Maths exams before they start their apprenticeship, to alleviate the pressure of completing extra exams at the same time as their apprenticeship.

Enabling opportunities for lifelong learning

Our belief is that learning shouldn’t stop after your schooling years, nor should it stop because you’re no longer in the early stages of your career. All colleagues should have equal development opportunities, so we’re always looking for ways to overcome obstacles to learning, and prove that age is no barrier.

In addition to our traditional apprenticeship programme, we introduced our Career Builder scheme in 2017, which enables colleagues at any point in their career to take on further learning, regardless of their current position or tenure.

So far, 144 colleagues have completed the Career Builder scheme, giving more people the opportunity to achieve new heights in their careers, whether it’s a qualification in a different sector or a degree apprenticeship.

Plugging the skills gap

Those heading up businesses and its early careers offering will likely agree there is a noticeable skills gap across many sectors, and particularly in STEM subjects. At CCEP, we’re particularly keen on increasing the number of engineers coming through our talent pipeline, and especially the number of female engineers.

This is where the opportunity that lies in successful apprenticeship programmes really comes to light – helping to fill more positions by equipping the next wave of talent with the skills they need for these roles.

There are again many factors that play a role in the current skills gap, but I believe continuing to evolve apprenticeship programmes and consider changes that will support those of different age groups and skillsets is crucial. Mindful changes can help increase the number of candidates in apprenticeship programmes, help more people strive for roles in different industries and hopefully help shrink that skills gap.

Armed with a decade of experience, we are able to keep expanding our apprenticeship programmes. We’ve worked hard to spread awareness of our offerings across the business, and have future employees view the brand as more than a leading soft drinks manufacturer, but as somewhere to truly evolve career skillsets, regardless of age or background.

As industry leaders strive to create programmes that focus on widening participation and encourage people to upskill or reskill, we need to come together across industries to increase apprenticeship completion and promote confidence across sectors. We also need to collaborate with industry officials to ensure the Early Careers challenges are on their radar. Only by removing or reducing the barrier of functional skills will we see real progress.

By Sharon Blyfield OBE, Head of Early Careers at Coca-Cola Europacific Partners

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