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2 March 2018updated 17 Jan 2024 6:10am

Why entry-level jobs needn’t stay that way

The head of education at Whitbread explains how apprenticeships can shape the future of the hospitality industry.

By Sandra Kelly

With 50,000 employees and a turnover of approximately 45 per cent per year, the hospitality company Whitbread, which owns the Premier Inn and Costa Coffee brands, needs to recruit 60 people a day just to stand still. This is not a problem Whitbread, which is celebrating its 275th year in business, faces alone – it’s an industry-wide issue.

Entry-level hospitality positions are typically recruited from within the 16 to 24-year-old age bracket. But it’s a demographic with alarmingly low retention rates and this high level of churn causes a significant recruitment cost to businesses.

Appropriately for a business itself founded by an apprentice – Samuel Whitbread back in 1742 – Whitbread has a solution: apprenticeships. By recruiting apprentices the company has seen an improvement in retention. Nearly three quarters of apprentices stay with the company for more than 12 months, a striking contrast with the just over a quarter of non-apprentices who do.

Dean Jones, Premier Inn and Restaurants management skills trainer, says : “The programmes, especially for our 16 to 18 year olds, are brilliant in supporting people to take their first steps on their career journey, through developing knowledge and confidence. These skills can then be used to make an apprentice brilliant at their role and capable of delivering a fantastic guest experience. Apprentices can even progress to managing their own hotel, restaurant or coffee shop.”

But apprenticeships are not just a route into entry-level jobs. Crucially, Whitbread’s programme also supports internal development. It aims to use apprenticeships to fill management positions through internal progression and to inspire more young people to choose a career – not just a job – in hospitality. As such, it plans for its site managers, operators and internal quality auditors to study to support apprentices on programmes.

This plan is working. Across the Whitbread workforce, apprentices are 5.7 times more likely to progress to a higher role than non-apprentices – reflected by the fact that one in four operations managers either started out or have been an apprentice.

One such employee is Charlotte Maloney,who joined Premier Inn just over six years ago. She decided to undergo an apprenticeship rather than attend university and complete a degree. Since gaining her level 4 hospitality manager apprenticeship in 2016 she has been appointed to her first operations manager role in Manchester. She says: “I can hand on heart say that without the apprenticeship programme, I would not have advanced through the company, or gained the knowledge as quickly as I have done.”

Whitbread’s commitment to quality apprenticeships since commencing its WISE (Whitbread Investing in Skills and Employment) initiative in 2012 has proven valuable to the business as a way to recruit into the hospitality industry, as well as a means to retain and develop this talent for the long-term. Malcolm Redmond, apprenticeship programme manager explains: “By setting up the WISE programme, Whitbread wanted to test a new way of attracting, retaining and progressing our employees through more structured one or two-week work experience for students, and structured two or four-week placements for those looking for work. WISE has created a ladder of apprenticeships from intermediate to higher levels to enable progression.”

This commitment is so ingrained in the company that the majority of training is delivered by an internal team rather than subcontracting it out – as is the norm with apprenticeships. However, this commitment to apprenticeships is at odds with the current trend seen by other employers. Last April, the government introduced the Apprenticeship Levy – which was aimed at recruiting 3m more apprentices by 2020. But the figures show it has not yet been successful. According to the Department for Education, between May and July last year, 48,000 people began an apprenticeship. That was less than half the 117,000 for the same period in the previous year.

This is because many businesses were not ready for the Apprenticeship Levy – which sees employers with a pay bill of over £3m each year contribute 0.5 per cent of that annual pay bill. They can then recoup the costs by investing in apprenticeship training. Many employers see it simply as an additional tax. But by being prepared, Whitbread will start to fully recoup the value it contributes within the next 12 to 18 months.

So, what does the future hold for apprenticeships? For Whitbread, the programmes have been so successful, the company has plans to increase numbers – going from the 2000 apprentices currently to a target of 5000 by 2020. Whitbread is focusing on different types of apprenticeship to offer even greater progression opportunities for its team.

For example, prospective apprentices who fear missing out on the university experience, will soon be able to apply to do a degree apprenticeship where they can focus on areas such as business-to-business sales. The first MSc in multi-site operations for eight managers have already been completed with Birmingham City University.

At the same time, Whitbread has seen the value of using apprenticeships to recruit and retain young people. It also recognises the importance of retraining and bringing talent to the business regardless of age – reflected in its ‘ageless’ apprenticeship offering, with a number of over-50s currently in learning.
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