Creating a pipeline of foodservice talent

As the foodservice industry in Britain faces the challenge of severe staff shortages, many hope a pipeline of talent through apprenticeships could form part of the solution, reports Helen Roxburgh

The fallout from Covid-19 and Brexit laws, which limit the flow of workers to the UK, have impacted on hiring in hospitality – a sector that represents 10% of British employment. A survey last year found record staff shortages are causing nearly half of operators to cut trading hours or capacity.

The survey by UKHospitality, the British Institute of Innkeeping, and the British Beer and Pub Association found 76% of operators currently have chef vacancies.

“Hospitality took a drubbing during the pandemic and is endeavoring to recoup the losses of the pandemic… so having to reduce trading hours because of a lack of staff is only exacerbating the situation,” says Kate Nicholls, CEO of UKHospitality.

“When venues were facing lockdown closures and restrictions, people sought work in other sectors that, unsurprisingly in those circumstances, seemed more secure – and then they did not return to hospitality in the same numbers as they left.”

Some of the biggest restaurant groups are now building up talent pipelines through apprenticeships and training programs. US fast food giant McDonald’s has launched a partnership with Lifetime, the UK’s largest apprenticeship provider, to take on 3,000 apprentices by December 2024. It says the new apprenticeship program will ensure that it “represents the diverse communities in which McDonald’s operates” through a “culture of inclusion and dismantling barriers to economic opportunity.”

Last year, John Lewis became the first British retailer to launch its own Chef Academy. “The UK has always delivered some of the world’s best chefs, but that has come under threat in the last two years as the industry has come under increased pressure,” says Michael Abadee, an executive chef for the John Lewis Partnership.

The partnership has said the Academy will take on 10 apprentices in its first year and potentially increase in the future. “Over the years, we have increased the number of employees enrolling in our apprenticeships from around 18 to around 40 and growing, and we have also increased the number of professional apprenticeships offered, such as in engineering and finance,” says James Goulding, regional director of people & culture, UK, at PPHE, owner of the Park Plaza hotel chain. “In 2022, we created more than 1,000 new jobs, and the PPHE Apprenticeship Academy went from strength to strength.”

An important gateway

Apprenticeship numbers were on the up from 2017, according to UKHospitality, before growth was halted by the pandemic. Now the industry body is hoping for 25,000 apprenticeship starts per year by 2025.

“We believe apprenticeship schemes are an important gateway for school leavers entering the industry,” says Goulding, adding that training programs were also available for senior staff.

“This gives them the opportunity to combine work and study, by mixing on-the-job training with off-the-job learning. Apprentices are employed by PPHE to carry out their job and are given paid time for continued learning either at the hotel or at a college or learning center.” Dorota Strzelecka, learning and development manager at PizzaExpress, said the restaurant chain will “always look at the needs of the business and use the apprenticeship scheme to attract new talent to grow with us.”

The group has a Chef Academy and apprenticeships ranging through to MBA programs. “Our Apprenticeship Scheme is an important tool for our business and for our employees,” adds Strzelecka. “Learning while working is the best way to upskill and train existing team members for their future careers at PizzaExpress and beyond.”

The brand aims to have at least one employee on an apprenticeship program in each of their over 360 restaurants, she says, while 62% of employee apprentices who joined since 2017 are still employed with them.

Restaurant and pub operator Mitchells & Butlers hopes to start 2,000 apprenticeships this financial year and is currently advertising around 740 apprentice vacancies. “We have been actively using apprenticeships to attract new talent into M&B for over a decade and we are proud of many of our people who started as apprentices and have progressed into management and leadership positions,” said Paul Capper, Head of Apprenticeships at Mitchells & Butlers.

They work with six universities and providers with opportunities including HR, procurement, finance, sustainability and marketing. “Recruiting purely through the apprenticeship route is never going to be the total solution but it works very well as a suite of opportunities to attract, develop and retain our workforce,” he says.

Behaviors and potential

The government launched a campaign this year to raise awareness of opportunities with career starter apprenticeships. It has featured apprenticeships from some of the biggest employers in catering and hospitality, with materials showcased in schools and colleges across the country.

“The sector is massively varied and not everyone understands its components or opportunities; they aren’t discussed on the same level as other academic routes or professional sectors,” said Capper.

There is a “need to start the education process earlier and change some deep-rooted negative perceptions among key influencers – low pay, low skill, lack of progression – into positives,” he says.

Capper cites National Apprenticeship Week, award schemes, and outreach on social media as ways to raise the profile of apprenticeships. Mitchells & Butlers has also recently run its first virtual work experience program. “Thinking innovatively is critical to ensure we reflect the changing expectations of those entering employment,” he adds.

But while government moves to support apprenticeships have been broadly welcomed, its apprenticeship levy has come under pressure. The levy, introduced in 2017, is a form of taxation designed to help companies offer more apprenticeships, with stored funds, which can be accessed to help pay for apprenticeship training costs.

It requires large organizations to set aside 0.5% of their payroll for apprenticeships. But industry bodies including the British Retail Consortium have warned that the model was actually “holding back investment” in critical training that could increase productivity, fuel economic growth and raise wages.

Industry figures also expressed disappointment that the new T Level in catering, which was due to launch later this year, will now be delayed beyond next year. The qualification has been developed to give school-leavers another education route outside of A-levels and could mark another pathway to enter the strained sector.

“Attracting workers to the sector is vital to our future revival and recovery, in a sector that can drive wider economic recovery, growth and employment nationwide,” says Nicholls. “Contrary to common perceptions, very many of the roles in hospitality are highly skilled, not least in kitchens, where shortages are acute. “Apprenticeships can help to entice talented people of all ages into an exciting and fulfilling career in all sorts of roles though, from foodservice, to marketing, social media, and many more.”

Helen Roxburgh

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