News that more of this year's hospitality graduates have chosen jobs in the perceived more glamorous sectors, such as restaurants and hotels, than in contract catering serves to highlight a long-standing image problem for the last sector. But, although some colleges and contractors blame each other for lack of support in tackling the situation, the outlook is not as bleak as it might seem.
There is no definitive research on the number of hospitality graduates who choose not to follow a career in hospitality. Maybe there should be. But anecdotal evidence from college leavers suggests that fewer than one-third stay in the industry.
In this light, the fact that only three out of 95 hospitality students at Oxford Brookes University and one in 10 students at Thames Valley University have chosen employment in contract catering this year (Caterer, 18 May, page 12) suggests that the imbalance might not be quite as bad as it would initially appear.
That said, there is consensus that contract catering has a harder time attracting college leavers. The root of the problem is image - or lack of it. Both college lecturers and contractors are faced with the fact that graduates are increasingly influenced by fashion and media hype. If it's not a sexy TV soap about hotels, it's a glossy magazine featuring celebrity chefs, newspaper articles about cutting-edge restaurants or ads for gorgeous tourist resorts.
Conversely, contract catering tends to go on behind closed doors in executive dining rooms, staff restaurants, hospitals and so on. Often, the students' only exposure to it has been school dinners and, as Jamie Oliver has so successfully highlighted, those memories probably aren't good ones.
It's a problem that colleges struggle with in their bid to persuade students that contract catering is a good career option, says David Foskett, professor of hospitality at Thames Valley University.
Foskett would like to see contract caterers send a key member of staff to teach at a college for six months, with companies rotating the duty. He believes this would help build a useful relationship between industry and students and enable companies to illustrate career potential. As with many such good ideas, however, he appreciates that logistics and cost have held interested companies back.
"Colleges do get a lot of backing from contract caterers, but the glitz is not there," Foskett says. "Contract caterers get students for work experience but need to do more with them."
This hits on a crucial point. Students are known to drop out of all sectors of hospitality after bad experiences on industrial placements, sometimes after having been treated as cheap labour.
"The year spent in the industry is a formative period, and not all employers recognise this," says a British Hospitality Association spokesman. "If the students have a bad experience and leave, it means that the education spent in hospitality is wasted."
Compass is one company that makes positive use of industrial placements, including an arrangement with Westminster Kingsway College, whereby all first-year NVQ students do placements at the company's London sites.
This clearly pays off. While competitors complain of a slump in the numbers of graduate recruits, Mike Stapleton, corporate affairs director at Compass, reckons he doesn't have a problem. Each year the company gets more than 500 college applicants for its graduate training scheme and takes about 75-90 graduates a year, many of whom have gone on to hold senior positions. In addition, it takes 700 school leavers on its Modern Apprenticeships scheme.
"You need to show them what you do," says Stapleton. "It's easy for students to empathise with restaurants and hotels, because you can go into them, but contract caterers are usually in clients' premises, so you are on the back foot from day one."
The company realised that this was a problem back in the late 1990s, and was so concerned that it targeted FE and HE colleges to build up relationships.
But this has been hard work. Incentives include offering site visits and industry placements to students, getting involved with the academic curriculum by sitting on the boards of colleges and universities, writing modules, updating academic staff on industry matters, giving them industry sabbaticals, providing teaching tools in the form of research and business information (thereby getting third parties to deliver their message) and helping in degree assessments.
There are countless more initiatives, including providing guest speakers at university conferences. Interestingly, however, the one thing Compass doesn't do is go to careers events and fairs. That's because, Stapleton says, statistics show that only 5% of students attend. "We look for the other 95%," he says.
So, to increase awareness of career opportunities in the sector, Compass posts information where students look - particularly on the internet. It provides company profiles and online applications on key sites such as Caterer.com and Hobsons.com and has worked hard on getting its sites linked to key words in search engines.
"The net result of this is that students are aware of what we do," says Stapleton. "It's win-win for both of us. If you do all this and then don't get a response, it is time to moan." He has subsequently taken this strategy to the USA and Europe.
Of course, smaller contractors will point out that an international organisation such as Compass can afford to invest thousands of pounds in colleges. Stapleton agrees, but says that doing so isn't "overly expensive" and suggests that smaller contractors could work with local colleges and offer industrial placements.
Many do just that. Clive Hetherington, joint owner of contract caterer Vacherin, says that although it can't afford major sponsorships, its managers are now trying to build up relationships with the institutions from which they graduated. "We don't get many staff fresh-faced from college," Hetherington concedes, "but we see a pool of students as being a good source of employees."
In general, then, contractors and colleges seem to be working together. Yet there are tensions. For instance, contractors voiced disappointment that a recent event hosted by hospitality funding group the PM Trust, aimed at making colleges aware of £50,000-worth of grants, attracted only four out of 30 London colleges.
It's possible that poor communication is to blame. At least one lecturer Caterer spoke to says he didn't even know about the event. On another level, academia and industry don't always have the same priorities. Gary Hunter, head of culinary arts at Westminster Kingsway, says that at certain times of year his priorities are exams and recruiting students for the following year.
So, is contract catering suffering more from the industry-wide staffing crisis than other sectors? Probably not. The fact is that a lot of students choose hotels or restaurants when they leave college but often move across to contract catering, attracted by the better pay and hours and by some of the best restaurants and dining rooms around.
"It's a perennial problem, but not as bad as people say," says David Golfarb, director at recruitment company Hamilton Mayday. "Barriers have been broken down. We switch people between sectors, and there was a time when people simply didn't swap."
Even so, Goldfarb reckons some companies are missing a trick. Many contractors have the flair and financial clout to host impressive conferences, cookery competitions and events, but often fail to invite any lecturers or students along.
He also points out that, as contract catering becomes more retail-focused, the lines are blurring. There are, for example, operations such as hotel services, where a law firm might want night facilities such as room service. And these opportunities should be flagged up.
The colleges also reckon that the problem is not as bad as widely touted. Hunter confirms that Westminster Kingsway has good relations with a number of contractors, including Charlton House, Compass and Sodexho. "We try to give a broad range of experience," he says. "Our first-year full-time chefs programme is dedicated to contract catering. There are lots of opportunities, but companies need to sing about it more."
Donald Sloan, head of hospitality, leisure and tourism management at Oxford Brookes University, is equally upbeat. The college has strong ties with Elior, Compass and Sodexho, and Sloan says that many other colleges are also working in tandem with the industry.
He concedes that students don't flock to the sector, but he's also puzzled that stories persist about students not choosing contract catering. He says six of his graduates have secured good jobs in the sector. In his experience, once they are in, they usually stick with it. One concern, however, is that not all contractors offer appropriate positions or training programmes for graduates.
The bottom line, of course, is that the recruitment crisis goes right across the hospitality industry. Academics believe the main reason for this is that the Government and schools promote academic courses over vocational ones.
The challenge, for the industry and colleges alike, is to communicate how exciting, satisfying and varied a career in hospitality can be - whether it is in hotels, restaurants or contract catering… or all three.
How to build good relations
- Provide sponsorship.
- Offer work placements, and make sure students are shown their career potential and that the sector offers varied, all-round experience. Don't treat them as cheap labour.
- Get the message across that this is a 9-5, Monday-to-Friday, career with great development potential.
- Develop secondment of managers and chefs to teach at colleges.
- Invite academics and students to events, conferences and cookery competitions.
- Make sure videos or presentations are relevant to young graduates - and lively.
- Get involved in driving your local college's curriculum; provide information and research as teaching tools.
- Go in at the beginning of the year and give presentations, either on the company or on personal career experiences.
- Organise site visits.
- Be easily accessible on the internet.
- Provide online applications on recruitment sites.
- If you cater at a school or college, make it a showpiece.
- Work with Springboard to develop initiatives.
- Sponsor college prizes.
- Explain and demonstrate to students what contract catering is about.
- Give time to contract caterers, and encourage companies to work alongside you.
- Take placements in the industry to stay fresh and up to date.
- Take up invitations to industry events, especially if grants are to be given out.
What industry and the colleges say
Jess Le Couteur, BA (Hons) in hospitality management, recruitment and training manager for Compass, Millennium Stadium, Cardiff
"After working on match day at the Millennium Stadium, I heard about the graduate trainee scheme that Compass runs. I'd previously worked in restaurant catering but was enticed by the stability that this role offers, the buzz factor and the challenge of working on something different every day."
Donald Sloan, head of hospitality, leisure and tourism management, Oxford Brookes University
"There's no active negativity from students, but the opportunities in hotels or restaurants are often more obviously appealing - involving international travel, say."
Meeta Patel, recruitment manager, Charlton House
"I recently interviewed six students from Thames Valley University for a one-year placement, and only one was knowledgeable about contract catering. Looking back, if I'd known about contract catering when I was a student, I wouldn't have put myself through hotels and restaurants."