A word to the wise

01/03/2012 - 00:00
There’s no doom and gloom when People 1st chief executive Brian Wisdom is around. Describing himself unashamedly as a ‘glass half full’ kind of person, he looks forward to the Olympics and the Diamond Jubilee in 2012 and beyond and says there has never been a better time to be in catering and hospitality. David Foad reports

Q: When you were at school what was your dream job?
I thought about being a barrister, inspired perhaps by the theatrical side of it, but after a year of law at Durham University I realised it wasn’t for me and switched to English history and politics.

Q: What did you end up doing?
I looked for a role that would give me industry experience and was taken on by Truman Brewery as a graduate trainee. It was fortuitous, because Truman was taken over soon after by Grand Met, which had an incredibly good training scheme and good links to business schools and brought through many senior managers into the hospitality industry

Q: How did your hospitality career progress?
I became a regional director with Whitbread working for its Berni Inns brand. It was a diverse business at the time; it was still a brewer, was buying up David Lloyd Leisure, owned Costa and the drinks chain Threshers. Later they asked me to integrate Peter Dominic into the business and I was operations director for 3,000 shops and 18,000 staff across the eight different brands under the Threshers name. I acted as PR spokesman for Whitbread, which meant I had to understand the whole industry. Then I  went on to be a director of the Harvester brand, which is now part of Mitchells & Butlers. After that I Ieft to be a consultant and worked with the Post Office on the franchising of its outlets into the group of  WH Smith’s shops.

Q: What are the strengths of UK hospitality?
It’s dynamic, growing, customer facing and offers a range of jobs and enterprise opportunities. People 1st’s annual State of the Nation report, based on responses from 5,000 businesses and seen as definitive by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, shows the industry is characterised by a big rise in demand for management and skilled roles. In fact, one in every three hospitality jobs today fits this description and getting that message across about the quality of jobs available is critical to changing perceptions of the industry. The labour market is the biggest influence on Government right now: Jobs, enterprise opportunities and growth. Hospitality offers all three, so it is no surprise that even as spending is being cut back in many areas, People 1st is getting the lion’s share of strategic funding to invest in skills training. However, we still have a job to do in getting this across to the public and school kids.

Q: What are its weaknesses?
The lack of people skills and customer service among employees coming into the industry – employers reckon up to 63% don’t have them. They also point to a shortage of management skills and leadership and too few job candidates coming through with the necessary craft skills.

Q: How important is education and training?
Paramount. More than 70,000 people have been given customer service training in preparation for the Olympics this summer based on the World Host programme developed in Canada for the Winter Olympics in Calgary in 2010. The programme is now available online. In addition, contract caterers are training a further 40,000 staff to fulfil their Olympic obligations and People 1st are§ working with a further 12,000. We’re on a roll, we’ve got momentum, so join the programme. We also have one big systemic opportunity in training in that 70% of frontline workers are women, however we don’t get enough of them into management and only 6% of boards of directors are female. According to OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) figures, if we could equalise the numbers of men and women on boards we would see a 12% rise in GDP (gross domestic product). In other words it’s costing the economy £3 billion a year.

Q: How is People 1st helping?
We have set up Women 1st to promote the development of females in the workforce. If you want to see why, then look at McDonald’s in the retail sector where the chief executive (Jill McDonald) has introduced a women’s leadership network or Sodexo in foodservice, which is pushing this agenda too, and it’s no surprise that both are performing well against their competitors.

We have been promoting the development of chefs and colleges have responded by turning out chefs who are better trained than ever, but the supply will never be enough to close the skills gap. We are also helping employers generate apprenticeships and workplace training. If we want to get behind Government plans to improve the diet and nutrition of the nation then we need well-trained chefs who can prepare dishes from scratch. We have also just announced plans to help 20,000 unemployed youngsters find work – if we succeed then we can reduce the welfare bill by £250 million.

Q: There is a perception in hospitality that overseas workers are better. Why is that?
It is only a perception, it’s not reality and it won’t last. There has been an over-use of transient workers and this has affected our ability to have the quality of management we need. We must use our own people and make sure sustainable employment practice is carried out alongside sustainable practices in food sourcing and the environment. It’s true that the type of person coming to the UK is a motivated, self-reliant graduate and they can easily compare favourably with British college leavers with an NVQ. But in France restaurateurs rave about the attitude and skills of British graduates who go there to work and learn the language, so we should be careful to compare like with like rather than slip into lazy generalisations. What’s needed is to help the unemployed become competitive by offering them training in customer service, skills and management to make it easier for employers to hire them.

Q: What can schools, colleges and universities do to help the industry?
To schools I would say: Help us to help you equip your children with the life skills needed to cook and understand good nutrition. I would urge colleges to be outward-focused, work harder and form local partnerships. Universities have to prepare people for industry, but their students are paying fees for future employment, so they should make training practical and remember hospitality has a massive opportunity to work with industry on management and leadership.

Q: How important is hospitality to UK plc?
Massively so. We account for 7.5% of the national workforce, it’s a growing sector and accounts for more business start-ups each year than any other sector – as well as the biggest number of failures, it must be added. It generates up to 500,000 vacancies each year, so no other industry can have a bigger impact on the welfare bill. It is our time.

Q: You say the 2012 Olympics presents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for hospitality.  What do you mean?
Because of the focus it will provide on hospitality, it will be a prime beneficiary. We’ll never have a better opportunity to present our ‘product’ than this year; it’s crucial for future growth.

Q: You fear the industry faces ‘a myriad of fragmented initiatives’. Again, what do you mean?
We are involved in an enormous range of issues from working responsibly, developing a sustainable workforce, the environment, recycling, nutrition and health. The sheer number can provide a distraction for hard-pressed businesses. Take as an example the row about food standards in the new academy schools. This is the industry attacking itself I believe we should be using this time of opportunity to hang together to create positive thinking and initiatives. Another example can also be seen in schools where Springboard has its Futurechef competition; the Academy of Culinary Arts runs its ‘adopt-a-chef’ scheme and many colleges operate Junior Chef Academies at weekends. None of them are connected, but perhaps we can find a way of drawing together those initiatives to make a bigger, coordinated impact without any of them losing their identity. They could be as successful with our youngsters as weekend music schools and sports teams.

Q: Will the London Olympics be a success?
I think it will be a catalyst. The games will be done well, it will be a celebratory occasion and hundreds of thousands will visit from abroad as a result. I believe we will reap the benefits in changing attitudes of the UK that were forged in the 60’s and 70’s. The spotlight will be on the industry and we should use it as a real kick-off and move the opinion of Britain among visitors to the top 10 in the world in terms of foodservice.

Q: What are the key issues facing public sector catering?
The main one is the same as that facing the wider hospitality industry, workforce development; in particular looking at making the most of women and improving technical skills. The public sector, understandably, has more of a spotlight on obesity and nutrition, so we should take a more proactive approach by creating aspirational standards for ourselves rather than attacking each other. Jobs are a major focus in the public sector and we need to look at reducing staff turnover by focusing more on career development for women and training.

Q: Are budget cuts an excuse for doing nothing?
I really do understand the challenges facing the sector, and it is difficult, so we need to look a little bit laterally at things we can do. There is the Clink (public restaurant run from HMP High Down that trains prisoners for the hospitality industry), which is a very important initiative that shows what can be done. At People 1st we have a grant (clarification requested) that ends in March 2013 and we’ve had to go out and find support. It’s difficult in the current economic environment but there is help out there. So if by working with partners or raising funding we can support public sector catering then I pledge my organisation to help.

Q: Is it possible to create a joined-up approach that links nutrition, health, training and sustainability?
We could build a code to cover the critical areas of CSR that cover the responsibilities of our industry. But it must be progressive and aspirational because we don’t want to incur the extra costs of disputes and division. It is a great challenge to design such an approach, but I would welcome a code that encourages recalcitrant employers.

Q: Does catering have a role to play in improving the nation’s diet?
Yes it does. We have a unique set of skills that can be used, but it must be pragmatic and we should, perhaps, be planning how to do it in an upturn rather than changing the world now. It might be better to try this when margins are a bit more forgiving. We will get the support because Government ministers fear a ‘lost generation’, but we’ll have more effect if we swim with the tide rather than wade against it.

Q: How can public sector caterers get the ear of Government?
It’s not a time for whingeing. Politicians want solutions, not problems – more than ever in these times of austerity. It’s about coming together to promote an agenda. If you can support your argument with evidence that you can save money then Government will have no alternative but to listen. And Government is built on relationships, so building these is tremendously important.

Q: What should the Government do to address the obesity problem?
We’ve got to be realistic; they’re not going to throw money at the problem right now, that will have to wait until more funding is available. Right now it’s more about getting ministerial help and support. Having said that, we’re storing up a hell of a problem, but the extra 20,000 chefs a year we aim to train under our Hospitality Guild initiative can help improve nutrition, food and health.

Q: What is People 1st working on right now?
People 1st needs to make a case for life skills like cooking in schools and beef up workplace training to give it the same recognition as those coming from college and university. We plan to establish the first new craft guild this century – the Hospitality Guild – connecting it with the livery companies and setting a gold standard for training. It will be a genuinely legacy project, helping jobless UK workers by improving pre-employment training. We have been awarded £8 million over two years, and we’ll be using some of this to offer online customer service training for SMEs, professionalise the industry, develop a simpler Investors in People programme to help employers diagnose problems. We want to increase apprenticeships and reduce the failure rate; at the moment 50% fail to complete their programme and we want to drive the success rate up to 75%. Among our ideas are registering all hospitality apprentices, monitoring them and offering and presenting awards. We plan to expand our Women 1st project, there will be a conference and we’re expanding our Top 100 into a Hall of Fame. In the summer we’ll also publish a book about developing women in the workforce.

Q: Are you optimistic?
I’m always a glass half full kind of person, but I genuinely believe there has never been a better time to work in hospitality. As a sector it’s predicted to grow even if the economy as a whole stagnates.

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