Not every teenager walks away from school with qualifications. For some, it is simply not the right environment for them to learn. As a consequence, many employers are likely to reject their applications for jobs because they do not have the minimum entry requirements – usually GCSEs in English and maths.

But Sainsbury’s has decided to give these young adults a chance by offering them an on-the-job education beyond the classroom. It has invited 16- to 24-year-olds without any formal qualifications to apply to become apprentice bakers in its stores – even if they’ve never baked a loaf of bread. All they need is bags of enthusiasm, a positive attitude and a hunger to learn. In return, they will learn a trade in a scratch bakery, gain a nationally recognised qualification and earn a wage.

The scheme is the first of its kind to be set up by a supermarket in the UK. As Johanna Jones, training development manager, explains: “Some firms insist they must have GCSE maths and English. But we’ve never said that. As a company that went against our ethos of what an apprenticeship is about. Some young adults don’t leave school with exam passes; perhaps it wasn’t the right place for them to learn. We feel that some learn best by working on the job.”

So far, 12 youngsters have started the first phase of the 18-month scheme in 10 Sainsbury’s stores in the northeast of England. The company hopes to recruit a further 10 apprentices in September and another 10 in January – these will be for supermarkets in Oxford and London. And by 2008 or 2009, there should be up to 400 in total working in stores around the country.

“Ideally we would like an apprentice in every store,” says Jones, “but that wouldn’t necessarily work because they don’t all have scratch bakeries. Our smaller ones just have bake-off products and I don’t feel an apprentice would gain enough of the skills needed if they were based in that area.”

These skills include learning how to make bread, cakes and pastries using Sainsbury’s recipes and specifications. This may seem restrictive to a potential applicant, but there is a possibility they can produce their own sample loaf, using their own recipe, towards the end of the course.


The programme also covers everything from ingredients, sourcing and problem-solving to stock management, production planning, quality standards, machinery and health and safety.

They will also be given training in selling techniques and communication, as part of the job will involve talking to customers about products and dealing with complaints.

Sainsbury’s has spent nearly a year developing the scheme with the sector skills council Skillsmart Retail. A lot of background work was required to ensure the framework and units met their business requirements.

It includes three basic elements: NVQ Level 2; a technical certificate; and key literacy and numeracy skills. Apprentices who successfully complete the course are awarded a certificate entitled Retail Apprenticeship with a Bakery Specialism, Level Two.

There are no essays and exams, although some trainees may need to pass separate assessments in English and maths. In-store and independent assessors closely monitor the trainees, who are taught by senior bakery staff, and evaluate their progress. They are looking for good all-round bakers, but any trainee who is finding a particular unit difficult will be given extra help. They also have a ‘buddy’ on hand – usually a ‘neutral’ manager in another department – to offer advice and support. A member of Jones’ small team also rings them once a week to offer assistance. And she has also tried to enlist the help of their parents at home – particularly when the trainees have to get up at 4.30am.

This level of support is a key element of the scheme and this is what Jones believes sets them apart from other apprenticeships. She hopes it will also be a factor in encouraging the trainees to remain with the company at the end of the 18-month scheme, although they are not tied into a contract.

Sainsbury’s has set an ambitious completion rate for its trainees of 90% – the current national rate for retail is around 37%. As Jones explains: “Across the board we are all very similar in terms of pay and benefit, but I think the clincher is the value part of it. We feel

that if we treat them fairly and actually value them, then they won’t leave us. People will be loyal to us because of the training they have been given.”

The company receives government funding of about £3,400 for each 16- to 19-year-old, which is about a third of the cost. Jones admits the overall cost to set it up and promote it, as well as recruitment and salaries, was high. But in the long term, she says, it will be beneficial, particularly if they expand their scratch bakeries. “There are lots of rumours that other supermarkets are looking at increasing the percentage of bake-off products because of cost. But this is something we’re not doing.” The company claims 90% of its customers buy fresh bread from its stores.


Sainsbury’s set up the scheme to attract people back into the trade and hone the skills of its future bakers. The move is a response to a sharp decline in the numbers of skilled bakers in the marketplace. Like many supermarkets, the company has had difficulties recruiting – a problem that Jones believes stems largely from schools and industry. She says: “Bakery is something that really isn’t mentioned. It also doesn’t have a good image in terms of hip and cool. I think we’ve got a big part to play in actually selling it as a career.”

There is also a misconception among some people that a baker in a supermarket simply heats up products, when they have actually been made on-site. As Jones says: “You can see why people don’t see it as a career when they just see it as bake-off.”

The scheme is aimed at young adults, but the company says it will consider any suitable person who is older and wants a career change. Before they are recruited, candidates are invited to spend an eight-hour shift working in the bakery. This is an opportunity for them to find out more about the job and whether they want to pursue it as a career.

They also experience the working environment, which can be harsh, particularly, in the summer when it can get very hot. During the shift, staff assess them, and the feedback – which includes whether they worked safely, asked questions and used common sense – goes into the final selection process. Applicants are initially invited to apply via a direct email campaign, aimed primarily at 16- to 24-year-olds in the postal areas where Sainsbury’s is recruiting. It is the first time the company has used such a selection process.

There are also in-store posters and advertisements in the local press, on local radio, job

centres and at Connexions, a government regional support service for young people. Included in the information is guidance, mainly for school-leavers, on what to wear when they come into the store for an interview.

The north-east of England was chosen to launch the scheme because, as a business region, it was considered to have a high commitment to training. It also does not have the same recruiting problems as other parts of the country. In fact, the stores in the region didn’t need any bakers. But, as Jones explains, the retailer wanted to test the scheme in an area where there was a low turnover of bakery managers, so that they could help to implement it. “For us, this first year is about us learning and how we can run the programme in the future,” she says.

The stores also recruited their own apprentices, rather than head office. This was to ensure that the candidates felt supported by that store and had accountability to the manager who hired them.

Out of the 12 recruited in the first phase, there were seven external young adults and

five already working at Sainsbury’s – two had just started in bakery and three were from other departments.

At the recent launch party for the scheme at the Assembly Rooms in Newcastle, representatives from Sainsbury’s and the National Learning Skills Council met up with the new recruits. The company also invited the trainees’ parents to go along to find out more about the job and the types of products that would be baked.


Jones says: “The launch night was a celebration of the fact that we have got this far and to

say welcome to them. When we saw the apprentices all together with their parents, it was absolutely amazing.”

The apprentices are encouraged to keep in contact with each other to offer mutual help and support. The company is also looking into setting up a chat room for them on their website and is arranging several group days out to other bakeries.

Once they have qualified as fully-trained bakers, they can apply for other opportunities within the company. For example, with additional training, they can go on to become

bakery managers.

Jones has also linked up with the Prince’s Trust to find out about recruiting directly for young disadvantaged adults who have been through the charity’s programme and want to better themselves. There is also an opportunity to work with the Trust using employed and unemployed youngsters in a community project.

And ‘community’ is key to the apprenticeship scheme. It is all part of what Jones refers to as Sainsbury’s corporate social responsibility to the communities in which it is based. The company is also considering setting up similar programmes in other departments, such as fishmongery. As she says: “We want parents to know that if their child shows a spark for food or cooking, then they will know that, in a Sainsbury’s close to them, they can get a trade and learn a craft.

“So many young adults are wiped off because they didn’t gain their GCSEs,” she adds. “But I’ve got senior managers who haven’t got any formal academic qualifications and have worked their way up. This is about allowing the next generation to be able to do that.”


Steven Pow

Age 22

Bakery apprentice

Team Valley store

Tyne and Wear

“I heard about the job at the Job Centre. It was the type of thing that I was looking for – a permanent job with prospects of a career. I had not thought about being a baker before. I’d done some cooking at school and at home but not done it as a job.

I am enjoying the course. I have been doing it for three months now and have got another 15 months before I complete it.

I am the only apprentice on the scheme in the store, but all the other bakers help me. I can only bake Sainsbury’s products – I make different loaves, baps and French sticks.

I have to get up at 4am but I live close to the store – just a couple of hundred metres up the road.

I would really recommend this apprenticeship scheme to others: the pay is good; you get assessed every two weeks throughout the course; you also do maths and English and learn about health and safety and counter training – it is like a retail apprenticeship as well as bakery.

If I am working in the afternoons, I meet quite a few customers and slice the bread for them. They also ask questions about the bread, which I like.

I would like to stay with Sainsbury’s and hopefully go for promotion. I am the only baker in the family and they are proud of me.

It’s also really helpful to talk to Maxine when I get stuck with things.”

Maxine Harmieson (Steven’s ‘buddy’)

Duty manager fresh foods

Team Valley store

Tyne and Wear

“It was decided that I would ‘buddy’ Steven because, in some of the trial areas, buddies haven’t worked as well when they have been bakery managers. I am impartial, which means Steven can come to me with any concerns or issues. His bakery manager mentors him on a day-to-day basis, but I am a second person if there is something he feels he couldn’t broach in the bakery department.

We are really proud to be the first region in Sainsbury’s to be trialling this. Steven, who we are all very chuffed with, is the baker who has made the most progress. From day one he has been keen and you can see he is genuinely enjoying what he is doing. When you think he has been working with experienced bakers, who have been working for 20 or 30 years, it is quite daunting for a young lad. There are 17 in the baking department – with seven bakers.

The apprenticeship scheme could have a far-reaching effect for Sainsbury’s because bakers are quite hard to come by, as are good bakery managers and experienced bakers. The salary rate that supermarkets offer, sometimes isn’t as competitive as stand-alone bakeries. But we are getting people trained in exactly the way we want them to be and we pride ourselves on the quality aspect of it. We also provide a good environment for learning. It is definitely the way forward.”