Bridging the skills gap

22/04/2016 - 07:44
Apprenticeships have been revolutionised and are no longer seen as the poor relation of degree courses. Now, the industry needs to get on board, argues Jill Whittaker, managing director of HIT Training, a leading supplier of training and apprenticeships.

One of the stories that dominated headlines in the catering industry over the past year was the skills shortage and, in particular, the highly publicised ‘chef crisis’.

Now that we’re firmly in 2016 and with many businesses about to start a new financial year, the focus for the industry is very much about addressing this crisis head-on and looking for practical solutions that not only work for individual companies but also for the sector as a whole.

In order to tackle the skills crisis, there are two approaches that operators need to take – providing training opportunities for staff and offering more occasions for people to enter the industry. One solution that ticks both of these boxes is apprenticeship programmes.

The role of the apprenticeship has undergone a sea change in recent years. No longer is it seen as the poor relation of the university degree. There is now significant public support for degree-level apprenticeships as an alternative to the traditional university course, according to research by the Sutton Trust, and a growing body of opinion that vocational education’s time has come: young people want it and employers need it.

Statistics released by the House of Commons show that apprenticeships are on the up, with 492,700 apprenticeship starts in the UK in 2014/2015 – that is 52,300 (12%) more compared with the previous year.

The government’s new Apprenticeship Levy, which comes into play in April 2017, will also bring about a whole new pot of funding – predicted to be as much as £3 billion.

Although there has been a mixed reaction to the plans, with some expressing concerns over the consequences of the new charge, these changes will ultimately benefit business owners who nurture home-grown talent at all levels, boosting the bottom-line and off-setting the levy payments to generate an engaged and skilled workforce for the future.

Running apprenticeship programmes will not only help to fill the skills shortage, it will also provide a number of business benefits.

Nearly three quarters (72%) of establishments report an increase in productivity of £214 a week from employing an apprentice, and 81% of consumers favour using a company that takes on an apprentice, both of which directly impact the bottom-line.

Hiring an apprentice can also have a positive impact on the whole team, with 80% of employers stating a significant increase in employee retention, and 92% of companies finding that having an apprenticeship programme has led to a more motivated and satisfied team.

In an age where competition is high and businesses are striving to find high-quality candidates to fill the skills shortage, investing in apprentices will not only create a dynamic and enthusiastic workforce; it will also help to secure a prosperous future for any business.

To see the value, let me tell you about an apprenticeship case study involving the independent contract caterer Harrison Catering Services, which operates in the education and B&I (business and industry) sectors.

Its ‘food with thought’ proposition centres around the on-site preparation, cooking and serving of 100,000 top-quality meals every day across more than 270 locations.

In order to achieve this, Harrison’s training manager Alex Taylor implemented a structured training programme in partnership with HIT Training across all levels of the national multisite business, and this contributed significantly to better staff motivation, engagement, skills and customer service.

As part of the collaboration, HIT worked with Harrison to develop an apprenticeship scheme covering over 12 qualifications and, since 2013, has supported more than 250 employees through this programme.

Following an increased uptake in apprenticeships of 386% in 2014, and with achievement rates of 95% or more, Harrison is also able to demonstrate a strong correlation between qualification achievement and staff retention, with internal promotions up that year by 544% on the previous one.

With more than 40 of its managers completing Level 3 Diplomas in hospitality supervision and leadership, Harrison also launched a bespoke Lever 4 ‘Higher’ apprenticeship programme in 2015.

As one of the most demanding hospitality courses available, it provides industry-relevant management training for those seeking to further their career in the sector and challenges the idea that apprenticeships are only available to teenagers and young people.

Alex Taylor told me: “We see progression to the Level 4 qualification as key to our strategy of providing development at all stages of an employee’s career.

“By enhancing our management capability at this level, we’re able to equip our junior and middle managers with the necessary skills required for success in the competitive environment in which we work.

“This also ties into our desire to be an employer of choice, and helps to ensure that our people are fully engaged and motivated to consistently deliver an exceptional experience to our customers.”

He found that offering qualifications such as this helped the company to recruit and promote from within where possible, and this has contributed to consistently low levels of staff turnover – less than half the industry average.

He believes that linking the company’s training to a nationally recognised qualification, such as the Level 4, means employees benefit from more than a standard in-house training solution.

I’ll leave the last word on this to Taylor. He says: “Apprenticeships allow us to give people a great opportunity to develop a career and learn a skill or trade that will accompany them throughout their working and personal life.

“Apprenticeships enhance people’s skills and capabilities, which deepen engagement and motivation, and give new members of the team the confidence to know that we genuinely care about them and their development.

“People are our biggest asset – and it’s our people who make the difference to the foodservice experience of our customers and clients.”

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