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As part of their new Ethical Operating Plan, the Co-operative Group is investing £30m in opportunities for young people

Co-operative Chief Executive Peter Marks meets two of the 2000 new apprentices working through-ought the Co-op. Photo © Mark Waugh
With one million 16–24 year olds out of work, Vincent O’Donovan, head of training and development at The Co-operative, isn’t too surprised that young people led the August riots.

“What’s missing for them is that first opportunity,” says Vincent. He is part of The Co-operative Group team that is creating 2,000 apprenticeships over the next three years. They will be within various sections of the business, from retail to funeral management.

The apprenticeships are part of the company’s £30m Inspiring Young People programme, which is one of the main aspects of the new Ethical Operating Plan it put in place this year. Other elements of the plan include protecting the environment, keeping communities thriving, tackling global poverty and respecting animal welfare.

But the work with today’s young people – which has three strands to it – is perhaps one of the most pertinent at the moment.

“For young people, we’re focusing in a few areas,” explains Vincent. “These are: education – the aim is to provide 200 cooperative schools over the next three years; sponsoring 16-year-olds’ right to vote and creating opportunities through apprenticeships, a sports coach academy and film programme. We want to change the perception of young people,” he says.

Seven cities in the UK have received a share of £2m funding from The Co-operative Foundation to tackle the negative images of young people through its Truth about Youth programme.

This follows the recommendations of the United Nations Committee on The Rights of the Child, which, in 2008, asked that the UK government “took urgent measures to address the intolerance and inappropriate characterisation of children, especially adolescents in the media and wider society”.

For the Co-operative, changing perceptions is multi-dimensional, and apprenticeships are something that they believe will work ‘on the ground’ to change perceptions.

“There will be a job at the end of every apprenticeship. That promise is important for young people. We think that offer is quite unique,” says Vincent. And, all apprentices will get 75% of the full wage for that job. “That’s also unusual and it shows we value them,” he explains.

The apprenticeships will vary from one to three years in length and will offer the new style NVQ – the QCF – in levels 2 and 3.

Anyone who doubts the keenness of young people to find a career will be surprised to learn that, within two months of going live on the Co-operative’s website this summer, 30,000 visits were made to the apprentice jobs pages.

The company, which has more than six million members, has a good history of ‘giving young people a leg up.’ CEO Peter Marks started as a shelf stacker at the company in his youth.

When Peter launched the £9 million apprenticeship academy in the summer, he shared his inspirational story with young audiences.

“Back in the 1960s, at the age of 17, I got my first job at my local Co-op store and today, 43 years later, I am running what has now become the largest consumer-owned cooperative in the world,” he said.

Peter said he realises how tough it is for today’s youth, with unemployment hitting its highest rate in nearly 20 years, and he is hoping other businesses will follow suit in offering similar programmes.

“We believe businesses have a real responsibility to help motivate and inspire young people by giving them new opportunities to gain the skills, knowledge and experiences to be pioneers for their generation,” he said.

The company is perhaps hoping to ignite and bring out a passion in today’s young people akin to that demonstrated by some of the youngsters that founded the Co-operative in the 1840s.

Five of the 28 founders were under 25 and had a vision for a fairer, more equitable society. These days there is a clear desire from the Co-op to see young people actively engaged in society, in the way its founder were. This is one of main reasons members have been campaigning on the right of 16-year-olds to vote.

The Co-op is aiming to grow to 20 million members over the next decade, which can only mean good news for young Brits. The organisation hopes its enduring status in a world of short-lived companies will offer its apprentices a sense of security. But, more importantly, with strong ethics at its core, the brand is sending out a positive message to the next generation about the future of how business and society can operate – that there is strength in goodness.

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