Embarking on a defined career pathway with a major retailer while earning a degree - as well as a full salary - sounds almost too good to be true. But that’s exactly what the Lidl Feed Your Mind Management Degree Programme offers. Applications are once again opening for the highly sought-after programme, which is run in conjunction with Ulster University and the Irish Times Training.
Successful applicants will immediately begin working with the global retailer, gaining invaluable hands-on work experience while simultaneously studying towards a two-year Level 7 foundation degree in management practice with specialism in retail.
Aimed at people with a background in retail or operations, the programme is a unique collaboration between the renowned retailer and a third-level institution. Both external applicants and existing Lidl employees can apply, with successful applicants given a two-year fixed-term contract in the role of deputy store manager or deputy logistics manager. To date, all graduates of the programme have secured permanent management positions in a variety of business areas within the company.
Having launched in 2018, places on the programme are now in high demand. In 2018 there were more than 800 applications, with 17 placed on to the programme; by 2021, Lidl received more than 2,000 applications and offered 25 placements. There will now be 40 positions available this coming September to accommodate and support Lidl’s expansion plans.
Padraig Walsh from Kilbeggan, Co Westmeath is in the final months of the two-year programme and has worked as a deputy store manager in Lidl’s Tullamore store since he entered the programme in 2020. He explains that he was already working in the food sector when he decided he needed a new challenge. Feed Your Mind jumped out at him as a novel opportunity to change tack and gain some additional qualifications at the same time.
“I wanted to go into retail, it was exciting and very topical at the time because of Covid. There was a lot of change happening in the sector and I saw Lidl progressing and expanding as an organisation at a rapid rate,” Walsh says. “They fulfilled my need and want for a fast-paced working environment where not every day is the same. The programme gave me the opportunity to gain a degree while gaining real on-the-ground working experience and blend the two together but also learn with some of the best lecturers from Ulster University. So there was the education aspect and career pathway while also working in paid employment and the benefits that come with it such as pension schemes and health insurance.”
Far from being overwhelmed by combining work and studies, Walsh says he was given the necessary support to maximise his learning potential, working closely with mentors and coaches from Lidl’s management and executive teams.
“You are not just thrown in at the deep end, it is very structured. You have an induction and you are given a handbook and you learn about each area of the store as you move on,” he explains. “You are taught about every aspect of the business, from the warehouse side of it to the customer experience and making sure that the first impression is the best impression in store from the moment they arrive until the moment they leave. There are so many different details that you would never think of if you weren’t in depth in it.”
He notes that part of the programme saw him and his classmates visit some Lidl distribution centres around Ireland - along with their lecturers. “There we got some real on-the-ground learning, blending the theory with the practical side of it. Everything from the specials that come in to the quality and freshness of our produce and even the packing in the morning… there is nothing you wouldn’t be able to do by the end of your time.”
This, of course, took place during much of the peak of the pandemic, which Walsh says was a learning curve in itself. “Customer wants and needs reached a whole new height in terms of hygiene and cleanliness and just the whole customer experience during that time,” he recalls, noting much of this will remain in the long-term. “You are taught the importance of customer interaction and giving the customer what they want from day one.”
And Walsh is keen to emphasise the focus that he believes Lidl places on a healthy work-life balance, saying the mix of education and work never felt like too much to handle.
“As part of the programme, you work four days in store with a college day in between for lectures or study for nine months of the year, then it’s back to five days a week during summer holidays,” he explains. “It’s intense to an extent, but there is a good balance struck. I can’t think of a better company in Ireland for believing in a work-life balance. I have worked in other companies where that aspect was neglected, but at Lidl if you are not on the roster you are not working and that’s that.”
Over the past couple of years, the education portion of the two-year programme was mainly carried out via distance learning. While the pandemic meant that Walsh didn’t get to spend as much time on the Jordanstown campus of UU as previous intakes had, he and his classmates did get to spend a couple of weeks there, during which time close friendships were forged.
“We have all met up several times and established a great bond and relationship with each other. We have been able to bounce ideas off each other and discuss what we are learning and help each other as we progress through the programme,” he says. ‘I have definitely gained friends from it. Every classmate is a helping hand and no one leaves anyone behind.”
Walsh is now working on his final project, which will be presented in front of lecturers from UU and Lidl executives before he completes the programme.
“This is based on recommendations or insights we have gained during our time on the programme that would be of benefit to Lidl, it could be anything as small as an aspect of shelving or something like a new technology we could see working within the store. It’s a chance to show what we have learned.”
Walsh has certainly learned that the dynamic nature of retail management is for him and he sees his future as remaining with Lidl. “The retention here is so high, which speaks for itself, and myself and my classmates can also see our role going forward in the expansion and development of the company. You really feel like you’re linked in with the store’s future.”