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Words of Wisdom

05 March 2009 by

Six years after its creation People 1st, hospitality's Sector Skills Council, can finally point to signs of progress in its bid to align the training, recruitment and retention of talent with the industry's needs. Its chief executive, Brian Wisdom, speaks to Mark Lewis

"How about ‘Knitting fog'? Or ‘Unravelling spaghetti'?" Brian Wisdom is telling the story of People 1st, the hospitality Sector Skills Council he heads, and every story needs a title.

"Great expectations" might be a better choice. Since its inception, People 1st has battled to manage the frustrations of an industry sector impatient for change on the skills landscape, yet unappreciative of the groundwork required before change can be affected.

Our story begins in 2002, when the Government identified skills as one of four key areas of development that needed addressing for the country to match the productivity of its leading competitors. Some 75 national training organisations across all industry sectors were rationalised to 25 bodies to be licensed across the major sectors. People 1st was one of these new Sector Skills Councils, its objectives to reform qualifications stimulate world-class delivery attract, develop and retain high-quality people and deliver a skills communication system that industry understands.

A lengthy licensing and proposition-building process ensued. "The origination process began at the start of 2003," says Wisdom. "It didn't open until late 2004, so there were two years of vacuum before People 1st existed. Then we had to do research and back-room work for three years. I can understand why the industry was frustrated," he admits.

Arriving in December 2004, Wisdom quickly realised the scale of his challenge. "The finance director had been on compassionate leave for three months the chairman announced he was leaving and we were eight weeks from running out of cash. We had committed to 130 projects and none had any real strategic focus for the industry. I went away that Christmas and wondered if I should bother to come back."

Wisdom did return, and with a clear sense of priority. "The first thing was to get the finances right. This required the removal of a number of people - the sort of thing as a leader you hate doing." Though a public sector body, People 1st had commercial arms in the shape of an awarding body and a training company. Wisdom sold off the awarding body for strategic and financial reasons. "Those reserves meant we didn't have to chase areas of funding that weren't strategic and we stopped developing qualifications, which was an issue, as the industry has too many."


It took three years to unwind these 130 projects. Meanwhile, extensive research went on. "Over two years we talked to 5,000 businesses to shape our agenda. We heard that we had 500 qualifications in this sector alone - the state of Denmark has 300 for its whole industry! Industry didn't understand them, and Government was spending £600m a year through a myriad of agencies giving the industry skills it didn't want. We found the number of chefs being trained was in decline, while demand had clearly been growing, and that we'd got undertrained managers and staff working in commercial kitchens."

As research progressed, Wisdom grew a thicker skin. "We are a Marmite Sector Skills Council: you either love us or hate us. Industry and the trade media were quite critical, looking for instant results in an area that takes a long time to build. Like any gardener, you plant stuff for the future. It's only when it's flowered that everyone appreciates it."

Matters weren't helped by People 1st's initially fractious relationships with other industry bodies. "There were, inevitably, tensions. Trade associations were hostile to us, because they were excluded from the council in the original licence - we could only deal with individual employers. My belief was always that that was wrong. It took 18 months for the SSDA [Sector Skills Development Agency] and Government to agree to change our governance structure so we could accommodate trade associations. As a result the BHA [British Hospitality Association], the Tourism Alliance and others are now represented on our members' council."

Wisdom never felt People 1st represented a threat to other trade bodies. "Our job isn't to create qualifications, but to sort out the best ones and signpost them to industry. The Institute [of Hospitality], Springboard and the Academy of Food & Wine all do good work in their areas, but there's never been a fulcrum body. Because of that, what you've seen is the proliferation of qualifications."

Two years of market research led to the National Skills Strategy, launched by the then tourism minister, Shaun Woodward, in March 2007. Dubbed "Raising the Bar", it offered a 10-point blueprint to help employers and Government agencies address the four key priorities of retention, management and leadership, customer service, and chef skills. More detailed action plans followed later that year.


At last, in May 2008, People 1st had a tangible win to shout about, when its bid for a National Skills Academy for Hospitality was accepted. Led by former People 1st chief operating officer David McHattie, the academy is a subsidiary company of People 1st that will have more than £100m of Government funding to spend on developing talent for hospitality employers. An estimated 65,000 learners are expected to pass through its approved programmes in the next five years.

"It was one of our key objectives," says Wisdom, "the delivery mechanism for world-class hospitality training. We did the business plan. Converting the plan into action is a different challenge. The academy will create innovative training programmes in colleges so that industry training is kept dynamic. There are very good colleges out there, but training hasn't always been kept dynamic and updated, and quality assurance hasn't been kept up. They'll make sure things are up to standard."

The bid benefited from the support of several leading employers, which together committed more than £14m to help establish the hotel and restaurant schools the academy plans for our major cities. Such support of People 1st initiatives isn't always forthcoming. "What we are able to do is dependent on resources," Wisdom warns. "Government resource will always be limited, and with the current situation that'll get worse. I believe industry should put its money where it believes it's getting a return. If they don't, the risk is they won't get the service."

More good news followed a month after the academy win, when the Government made a further £112m available for staff training in the form of a deal - known as a compact - agreed with People 1st, to give hospitality employers easier access to the Government's flagship funding scheme for industry training, Train to Gain.

"Train to Gain's penetration hasn't been great," says Wisdom. "The compact is part of the way we are going to improve that. By removing barriers we've made it simpler for industry to understand. It's about training that Government wouldn't normally fund. If you went to your local college and said, ‘I want to train as a chef,' they'd say, ‘We can do that, but you may or may not get funded. Are you over 25? If so, we won't fund you. Have you already done five GCSEs? If you have, we won't fund you.' We've simplified the system and removed all those barriers from funded training."

The compact will also provide funding for short customer-service courses, which Train to Gain has not traditionally supported.

Another central plank of People 1st's work has been the rationalisation of qualifications to ensure public funding goes to programmes that are respected and needed by industry. "There are lots of vested interests," says Wisdom. "One of our successes has been getting them together behind locked doors and working with them to change things. Bear in mind awarding bodies make money out of qualifications.

"The classic example is the professional cookery diploma. Our research showed that not enough chefs were being trained, and industry thought training quality was variable. So we developed a new industry standard qualification by getting numerous awarding bodies together in the same room and securing funding from the Learning and Skills Council."

The new level 1 and 2 Professional Cookery Diplomas went live in September 2006, with level 3 following a year later. Today, at least 70 colleges run the new professional chef diploma. "We want to get to a point where every catering college does only that," Wisdom says. "We've had hundreds of people from the industry working on this over two years to develop the curriculum. You'll see us try and come to market with a plain-English sector-qualification strategy that will show what we are doing to reduce qualifications to 200 over the next couple of years and clearly label what does what for each industry sector - and get the buy-in from colleges."

Work on rationalising qualifications continues. "We've set up panels of employers reviewing qualifications, so it's employers saying, ‘That looks better than… ‘ or ‘That's not as good as… ‘. We need more employers to join panels. If a qualification doesn't fit our criteria, we don't recognise it. That doesn't mean someone can't offer it out there, but we'll be signposting the best."

People 1st's fingerprints are also all over the Government's new vocational hospitality diploma for 14- to 19-year-olds. About three-quarters of UK secondary schools and 88% of colleges have signed up to teach the new qualification from September. It means students will for the first time be able to gain a diploma in hospitality, equivalent to between five and seven GCSEs and three-and-a-half A levels. The diploma is designed to have an industry focus, with a heavy reliance on work-related learning and an emphasis on work experience. People 1st has specified the content in consultation with employers, and is engaging industry to ensure placements are available for students (see feature, page 28).

"The fact that hospitality will be taught in schools with a curriculum developed by employers is a great opportunity to change kids' perceptions about our industry," says Wisdom. "These perceptions will be impacted by their placements with local employers. If these are good, they'll win hearts and minds for the industry. We can only get the message out that we need people involved in placements for diplomas and working with the National Skills Academy to improve delivery in local colleges, by making sure industry is well engaged."

This brings us to People 1st's fourth strategic objective: delivering a skills communication system that industry understands. "Our challenge is to communicate all the things that are going on and ensure industry is engaged in delivery," says Wisdom." When people know and understand what we are doing they engage with us."

Its website,, plays a key role. A single central resource for skills information, UKSP aims to signpost funded skills training with the best providers and connect employers and new entrants to the industry to create what Wisdom calls "a virtuous circle". "We now have 14,000 people signed up on UKSP looking for career development in the industry. We're increasingly getting employers signing up for it and getting excited about its potential. It makes a statement about their commitment to training and development of people. When we get talent, we've got to make sure it stays."


Wisdom's team also plans to reprise the industry-backed "Great Places 2 Work" TV advertising campaign that proved so successful in 2008 in building the industry's image and attracting fresh talent to it. "Our goal is to help change the perception of British customer service. If we do, that will boost our tourism economy. That sums up entirely what we are trying to do here."

The message is already hitting home, judging by People 1st research. "We surveyed our contacts to see what impact we've had: 23% said we'd had a high impact 45% reported a medium impact and 32% said we've had a low impact in that time. But this does say that industry believes we're having an impact. Many could say what they had done differently as a result of working with us - it might be as simple as ‘Now I have apprenticeships' or ‘I now have a qualification that I give my people'."

Will a successful London Olympics mark the end of the People 1st story? "It's not just about two weeks it's the best marketing opportunity the industry will have in the foreseeable future, a unique opportunity to change perceptions of our service brand, which are currently not good. If we don't, it'll be the greatest missed opportunity the industry has ever had. I'm not sure People 1st will ever go away. Change is constant: technology is changing the way our industry operates new markets are developing. We've done the planning. For me the end of the beginning is the end of the planning stage and the beginning of the delivery of change. We've unravelled spaghetti in the last five years. Now we're going to cook a completely different pasta dish that our customers will love."


1977 Joins Truman Brewery as graduate trainee just weeks before it was bought by Grand Metropolitan. Rises to regional director for Berni Inns

1990 Joins Whitbread as regional director of Beefeater and then operations director of Thresher. Assumes responsibility for corporate social responsibility at Whitbread (London), helping to set up Childline's London service

1999 Oversees Thresher's merger with Victoria Wine to set up First Quench Retail

2000 Becomes director and general manager of Harvester restaurants at Six Continents

2000 Leaves to run his own management consultancy

2004 Joins People 1st as chief executive officer



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