Apprenticeships: The new kids on the block

14 November 2012
Apprenticeships: The new kids on the block

It has been 10 years since Jamie Oliver launched Fifteen, his restaurant, charitable foundation and pioneering apprenticeship scheme. Since then, more and more people in the industry are launching their own schemes for apprentices. Hilary Armstrong reports

Fifteen marked its 10th birthday this year with a host of celebratory events, the highlight for the apprentices being a special, star-studded Chefs' Week. As always, at the end of August, Fifteen's professional chefs handed over the stoves to the young whippersnappers for one whole week, only this time the apprentices were joined by some of the UK's biggest-hitting chefs.

Such stellar names as Fergus Henderson, Bruno Loubet, Nuno Mendes and Francesco Mazzei all gave up their time to participate - a measure of their respect for the Fifteen project, but, perhaps even more so, a sign of how seriously they're taking the issue of apprenticeships. In the days running up to graduation, all the talk from both apprentices and guest chefs was who was doing a trial where and who are the ones to watch.

Rocksalt's Mark Sargeant, one of this year's guest chefs, who has himself set up apprenticeship schemes with his local academy school in Folkestone and Thanet College, says: "It's all very well and good being successful yourself but if we all just retired and went off to our fast cars and nice houses - not that that's what I've got yet! - and didn't care about the future, our heritage and our industry wouldn't continue."

The good news for the industry - and for the legions of school-leavers currently jobless - is that Jamie, Sarge and co aren't the only people in the hospitality industry to put their money where their mouth is. In the past year or two, we've seen such diverse names as the De Vere Academy, Le Bistro Pierre, Hilton International, Red Hot World Buffet, Accor, Compass, Greene King and the BII - to name but a few - launch new, improved or advanced apprenticeship schemes. According to the Hospitality Guild, nearly 15% more people completed an apprenticeship with a hospitality employer in the past year alone. Government funding for training (at 100% for 16 to 18-year-olds and 50% for over-19s) and cash incentives for small businesses have lessened the load for businesses considerably.

So why are apprentices so important to the industry? First and foremost, apprenticeships provide a means of addressing the critical skills challenge faced by the industry. Andrew Parkinson, executive head chef of Fifteen London understands the value of this: "When our graduates leave here, you can give them a butcher's knife and a leg of lamb and they'll know exactly what to do with it. It's very rare in the industry now because of the way it's gone that you'll even get a sous chef that can bone out a leg of lamb."

Ruth Asker-Browne, head of professionalism at sector skills council People 1st, says: "While apprentices are generally paid less than experienced workers, research has shown that they become productive quickly. The average cost of investing in an apprentice in the hospitality industry is approximately £4,240. As a result of increased productivity and efficiency, the investment is likely to be recouped by an employer within one year.

"Employers value apprenticeships because they help to retain staff and act as a pipeline into management, which reduces recruitment costs that are high because of the transient nature of the workforce in hospitality."

She does, however, stress that apprenticeships will flounder if they are not aligned with a company's business strategy and fully embedded in the culture of the organisation.

Geoff Booth, director of the Hospitality School and assistant principal at Westminster Kingsway College, places great emphasis on the credibility of the schemes available as they are open to abuse. He says: "We must ensure we do not allow unscrupulous training providers to dumb down or reduce the amount of actual training they deliver as part of the programme. This is about learning and developing new skills, not fast track box ticking, and spotting existing skills to process learners and attract Government funding."

Booth stresses the need for proper training, proper partnerships between the training provider and the employer, and a fair wage ("not the £2.60 per hour, which is derisory"). When a scheme is correctly managed, he explains, the work time allows the learner to develop skills in a methodical way that is relevant to the job they are doing; while their study time enables them to reflect on their role in the workplace and develop complementary skills to become a better employee, and to learn (and gain support) from their peers.

Modern apprenticeships can differ quite dramatically from traditional ones. Andrew Richards, HR director for Compass Group UK and Ireland, which this year created 40 openings for a Professional Cookery Apprenticeship for 16 to 18-year-olds, cites the introduction of functional skills, personal training and thinking skills as significant points of difference from a traditional apprenticeship.

"Our role in encouraging [economic] growth is to recruit, retain and develop apprentices through a vocational pathway, equipping them with transferable skills that support the future of the industry," he says. He believes that the new higher apprenticeships are an exciting development for the sector, a feeling echoed across the industry.

Apprenticeships, it seems, are not just for youths; they can, as Asker-Browne puts it, bridge the gap between the supervisory skills gained in an apprentice's early career and the strategic management skills required to work at a senior level. People 1st's new Level 4 apprenticeship framework designed especially for the hospitality industry supports this.

With new schemes and structures in place, the industry would appear to be in a good position, but many still feel there's work to be done to reach good candidates. Sal Bajpai, group general manager for Red Hot World Buffet, which launched its first apprenticeship scheme in 2011, says: "Some people think you only work in this industry for pocket money, but you can pursue a serious career in hospitality. The sky's the limit in a chain of restaurants like ours that is growing very fast. That's the message we want to get across".

Fred Sirieix, founder of Galvin's Chance, one of very few front-of-house apprenticeship schemes and the only one for disadvantaged 18 to 24-year-olds, agrees a lot still needs to be done. "People still have this idea that you're a servant in this industry and the people who are supposed to educate kids and guide them don't know any differently. Careers advisers still have a negative view of the industry. We need a marketing and PR campaign for the industry on TV and radio, and in the papers. It has to be co-ordinated and relentless. Conditions also have to change. Some people are still not working in the 21st century.

"It was tough with our first apprentice, but she highlighted a lot of flaws in our system so because of her, we became better. It was an exchange. It's made me a better person and it's making everybody else better."

This exchange is something social enterprise Fifteen knows about better than anyone else. The scheme may have had its share of negative press (the organisation itself commissioned, published - and acted on - a pretty damning report on its "messy start-up" in 2007), but the Fifteen team has worked hard to improve the pastoral care offered to the apprentices. As valuable as apprenticeships may be to a business; they're even more valuable to the apprentices themselves.

Head chef Andrew Parkinson explains: "When you talk to the apprentices on the first day you can see where they're going to be in the future as a chef but you can also see the challenge to get them there. To see the transformation at graduation is great. It's not just about being a chef; they now have confidence in life. Their parents come up to you at graduation and thank you for having an impact on their son or daughter's life."

When the apprentices graduate - and 70% of them do now, up from just over 50% by 2007 - they get a dog tag from Jamie Oliver and they become part of "the family" forever.

"If they go and work somewhere and they're struggling, they've got my phone number," says Parkinson. "They can walk through the door at any time and take 10 minutes of our time if they need to. The door is open."

If the new generation of apprenticeships - from pubs to five-star hotels, fast food chains to fine-dining restaurants - gets the same appreciation, then the future of the industry is in safe (skilled) hands.


2002 Jamie Oliver's Fifteen London opens in Westland Place. The first 15 apprentices, chosen from over 1,000 applicants, join a team of 25 chefs and mentors at the restaurant.

2002 The five-part show Jamie's Kitchen, about the Fifteen project, airs on Channel 4

2003 Jamie Oliver is appointed MBE in recognition of his role in establishing Fifteen and working with young people

2003 Fifteen makes headlines for turning down former president Bill Clinton's request for a table, for not booking in advance like everyone else

2004 A first franchise, Fifteen Amsterdam, opens 2006 Fifteen Cornwall opens at Watergate Bay in May, with Fifteen Melbourne (closed in 2010) following in September.

2009 A record number of apprentices - 15, to be precise - graduates from Fifteen London

2010 Fifteen reopens after a refurbishment

2011 Cult butcher Dario Cecchini, of Antica Macellaria Cecchini in Panzano, hosts a sold-out dinner at Fifteen London

2012 Fifteen hosts Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Unite "Screw Business As Usual" Summit

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