Training venture that has mirrored Liverpool’s renaissance

Now more than 20 years old, Liverpool training business Sysco has mirrored the economic rebirth of the city with a story of growth. Tony McDonough reports

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Sysco has been offering training across Merseyside since 1989


Training venture Sysco Business Skills Academy started out in 1989 which was around the same time as Liverpool’s economic renaissance got under way.

And as the city, and the wider city region, has grown over the past 30 years, Sysco has also evolved to become one of the biggest training providers and facilitators in the Northwest. To date it has worked with more than 8,500 companies and organisations.

Based in Truman Street in Liverpool city centre, the business now employs around 80 people, both directly and as associates. It currently has around 1,300 learners on its books. It is divided into three main divisions:

  • Apprenticeships – helping companies to fund training via the Apprenticeship Levy or a 5% co contribution for SMEs
  • Adult Education – assisting organisations to upskill their teams through the Liverpool city region’s devolved budget.
  • Bright Futures – offering Study Programme education mainly for young people aged 16 to 18.

Public perception of apprenticeships is very much rooted in the image of teenagers starting out in their careers. However, apprenticeships are open to all ages and are an excellent way for employers to either upskill existing staff or bring new people into their organisations.

Sysco’s apprenticeship programme focuses on leadership & management; housing; business administration; customer service; and coaching. They are available from level 2 to level 7.

You can mould an apprentice from day one to fit in with your business needs and its culture. Hiring people ‘off-the-peg’ with previous experience can be more time-consuming and expensive. An apprentice can become the person you need to be who fits right in with your business needs.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, businesses quickly had to adapt to different ways of working. This has accelerated the pace of change, particularly in areas such as digital technology. New and existing staff will need to adopt new skills as the recovery gathers pace. Apprenticeships are a cost-effective solution to upskilling your business.

The Apprenticeship Levy is paid by businesses with an annual wage bill of £3m or more and can only be used for apprenticeship training and assessment. Any payments not used within 24 months are recovered by central government.

But levy-paying employers can also transfer up to 25% of their contributions to support the apprenticeship needs of other businesses who do not have access directly to levy funds. This is a huge potential benefit for SMEs.

Becky Dutton is business development director designate for Sysco. She says the introduction of the Apprenticeship Levy changed the dynamic in terms of the age range of apprentices. She explained: “We deal with a wide age range of apprentices right across the board.

“Prior to the levy being introduced apprentices were very much skewed toward the lower age groups. It was around 70% young people entering the workplace for the first time and around 30% upskilling existing employees. The levy has altered that and now the average age of one of our apprentices is 37.

Changes to the Apprenticeship Levy system are about to make it easier for small and medium-sized firms to access the unspent Levy funds of larger employers. The Department for Education has confirmed employers it is to introduce a new online pledge function. However, the service has not yet gone live.

“We were one of the first training providers to support the use of the levy transfer and anything that makes it easier is to be welcomed,” added Becky. “There are still firms out there, particularly SMEs, who are unsure of the benefits of apprenticeships and how they can introduce them. We are here to help them do that.”

Sysco’s work in supporting firms to use the Liverpool city region’s devolved budget to upskill their staff is mainly focused on individuals aged 19 and above. It concentrates on the following areas: health & social care; team leader qualifications; and ITC certificates and diplomas.

“This service and funding is available for both companies looking to upskill their teams and to individuals who want to improve their own skill set,” said Sysco business development manager Lee Goodall. “With individuals they often come to us via a referral, maybe from an employer or from other sources such as Jobcentre Plus.

“We are also working with the Weapons Down Gloves Up programme. Through that we are helping people to gain qualifications leading to work placements and permanent employment.

“There are still one in five adults who have left education with no basic qualifications. By utilising the Adult Education budget we can help individuals progress both in life and in work. This in turn supports businesses and the growth of our Liverpool city region economy.”

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Sysco can help employers to upskill their existing staff


Like all businesses, Sysco was impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Becky said: “Prior to the pandemic we had actually discussed delivering more training online. Obviously from March 2020 that change accelerated rapidly.

“We invested in the technology and we moved to deliver quality training online pretty much overnight. We have had to embrace that and really make it work to our advantage so we can continue to support our learners.

“Ofsted came in during the pandemic to both review and document what we were doing The pandemic was a difficult challenge for everyone and I’m really proud of how the whole team responded to it.

“And it has had an impact on training priorities. With so many people having to get used to working from home, IT skills have become more important. Of course, care homes and care facilities were right in the centre of the pandemic and so training in health and social care has also seen changes.

“Another interesting change has been in the training of people in leadership and management. What we call the ‘accidental leader’, the employee thrust into a management role without any previous experience, is a long-standing phenomenon that we are used to dealing with.

“But what we have also seen over the past year is a greater emphasis on the softer skills. COVID-19 has had a psychological effect on all of us. It has been tough, for example, for those used to a bustling office environment who suddenly found themselves isolated at home. Coaching and wellness has become much more of a priority.”

As we emerge from the pandemic, Sysco, like many businesses, is adjusting to a new landscape and assessing the new skills that people will need as the economy looks to recover. Becky says a big part of its role is to “be constantly looking at the horizon”.

She explained: “This business is continuing to grow and it is our job to stay on top of our specialisms, to keep a focus on changes in the sector we focus on and to support individuals and business with the development of knowledge and skills that will help them to thrive, today and tomorrow”.

“Learning journeys are an invaluable experience for people and hugely beneficial for the businesses and organisations they work for. To watch the transformation that training can bring to both individuals and employers is just amazing.”

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