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SINCE the Government started pilot schemes of its New Deal in January, there has been an unmistakable buzz of interest from potential employers. Among the 10,000 firms that have signed up are a number of major hospitality concerns, including Whitbread, Eurest Support Services, Granada Group, Gardner Merchant and Bass.
From their trials, they report that first signs are encouraging, although meaningful judgements will have to wait until the end of the year, when New Deal employees have been in place for several months.
This may run contrary to the common perception that people from the bottom of the heap are the last people one should employ. Long-term unemployment is often equated with lack of motivation, as well as tangible obstacles such as homelessness, substance abuse and criminality - issues which few training managers are equipped to deal with.
Nor has past experience offered any encouragement. Well-meaning initiatives such as the Tories' Youth Training Scheme bring back memories of grumpy youngsters taking up managers' time and resources before either leaving in disgust or being fired. The scheme just never took off.
But perhaps the UK's New Deal will mirror a similar programme in the USA. There, the two-year-old welfare-to-work programme has confounded critics by getting large numbers of seemingly hopeless cases into long-term employment. Under increasing pressure to fill vacancies, recruiting managers have teamed up with employment agencies, training providers and community organisations to overcome any obstacles.
To their initial surprise, the anticipated problems failed to materialise. According to Marriott Hotels, which has pioneered this type of recruitment, the quality of the labour is comparable to that which comes from standard methods. But the real value is in the retention rate which, at 70%, compares well with the 52% for walk-in applicants, demolishing the stereotype of work-shy scroungers.
"We don't say they're better employees, but they are diamonds in the rough," says human resources manager Janet Tully. "Many of them lack basic skills that most of us take for granted. We're used to seeing mother and father going off to work, but these people don't have that kind of exposure. We have to bring them into focus on simple things, like what's an acceptable reason for being late."
This training is what makes the difference. Since 1991, Marriott has been offering its own six-week course in "life skills" such as attendance, presentation and attitude, as well as occupational skills. Ninety per cent are offered jobs and the course has helped to fill more than 1,000 vacancies. An expansion planned for this year will account for at least a further 1,500 vacancies over the next 18 months.
The company estimates the cost at about $5,000 (£3,125) per individual. It provides about half, mostly through contributions of learning materials, uniforms, accommodation and training provision, with outside organisations picking up the rest. "We feel the cost is offset very quickly, as trainees hit the ground running and stay in the job longer," Tully says.
However, most US companies prefer to let the employment services look after training, in partnership with training providers, and that approach is also being adopted in the UK, as candidates pass through a four-month period known as the "gateway", tailored to their individual needs.
Firms are offered a subsidy of £60 per week for six months to take on New Dealers, or £40 for part-timers. They commit to providing career training leading to a qualification, typically an NVQ level 2, for which they are given a further £750.
New Deal candidates will be taken on the same terms as other applicants, going through the company's standard training procedures and getting the same benefits.
Whitbread has been trialling the project in south London and in Newcastle. Beefeater restaurants there have been among the first to take on New Dealers, and training managers are pleased with the calibre of the applicants.
The company has a particular interest in opening up recruiting channels, with a projected investment of £460m this year expected to create 4,000 new jobs. But rather than copy the US Marriott's approach, Whitbread has opted to take advantage of the Government's initiative. "We already run a rigorous 90-day training programme which dovetails nicely into the New Deal concept," says Andrew Currie, human resources manager at the London Marriott Regent's Park. "We won't be teaching them life skills, though. We're looking for people with the right attitude, so we can graft on our skill and knowledge with our various programmes."
Regarding motivation, Currie is taking a cool approach. "Changing a person's attitude is a long-term issue, and that's always going to be an inherent weakness of the scheme," he says.
Most personnel managers are confident that, with the gateway training, the quality of applicants will be at least adequate. "To be honest, it's not rocket science. It's more about customer service and personality," says Kathy Smith, human resources manager of Eurest Support Services. "Clearly, with anything new there is an element of wait-and-see, and motivation may be an issue.
"But, it's down to us. If our selection is right and we get people with an outgoing temperament, I have no doubt we can turn applicants into customer-friendly employees, which for us is key."
Eurest is promoting itself in JobCentres with colourful, youth-orientated posters and flyers, and is giving applicants a booklet outlining the training and benefits it offers, together with success stories of young people in the business. The company has a growing need to fill vacancies and, when setting up branded outlets such as Burger King and Pizza Express, looks for precisely the under-25s catered for by the initial stages of the New Deal.
"This fits our business needs and it's important for us to do it," says Smith. "We probably have more vacancies than there are people to go round, so there is a lot of competition for them. The response from JobCentres has been overwhelmingly positive."
Smaller companies thinking of recruiting from the New Deal can get help from the Hospitality Training Foundation (HTF), which is actively promoting the project. The HTF has National Training Organisation status and is one of several organisations involved in the London Hotel Training Centre, to be based in Camden, which will introduce young people to the world of prestige hotels.
As the fruit of a wide partnership, the course is seen as a prototype for the New Deal and covers basic skills of numeracy and communication, as well as basic food hygiene and customer care. Trainees are guaranteed work placements of as long as 13 weeks, with those who impress being offered permanent jobs.
For employers, the HTF offers advice on how to meet the training commitment required by the New Deal. "Mapping NVQs is hard, and can be a very long, drawn-out process," says HTF director Declan Swan. "We aim to provide a formula that is cost-effective, simple and doesn't labour the point."
The HTF will also provide continuous evaluation of the New Deal's impact on the hospitality industry. "We are very committed to seeing this work," Swan says. "These are early days, but the key issue is to make sure that we attract the right people into the industry and that they are properly looked after."