The chef shortage: How apprentices are helping tackle Marriott Hotels’ retention challenge

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The chef shortage: How apprentices are helping tackle Marriott Hotels’ retention challenge. By Martin-Christian Kent, executive director, People 1st.  This March at Hotelympia, I will be welcoming a distinguished panel of industry experts to debate a story that has recently dominated hospitality headlines: the chef shortage. polish-chefs-england1We’re currently interviewing businesses and industry experts about the chef shortage and critically what can be done about it. There is not going to be a silver bullet to solving the problem, but there are many good examples in how businesses and industry partners are working to overcome it.  Joining me on the panel at Hotelympia will be the European senior executive chef for Marriott Hotels, Sean Kelly, who over the past five years has helped oversee one of the chain’s most enduring success stories, The Marriott Culinary Apprenticeship Academy. Set up in 2011 to address retention rates within its UK kitchens, and offering a guaranteed job, the academy project has led to a jump in Marriott’s apprenticeship completion rates from 60% in year one, to a hugely impressive 94% in 2015 - significantly higher than the national average of 70%. I recently had the opportunity to talk to Sean Kelly about the programme and its impact on Marriott’s business. How did the Marriott Culinary Apprenticeship Academy come about?Marriott_Logo “We’d always had apprentices at individual properties but we’d never had a company-wide apprenticeship scheme for culinary staff. “Our UK kitchens were probably the hardest hit when it came to attracting chefs and on top of that, we were facing a challenge in retaining chefs.  So in 2011, we decided to launch a UK-based apprenticeship initiative in the hope that a new approach might help address the problem.” Why do you think you weren’t getting the applicants? “The issue, and one of the key drivers behind setting up the apprenticeship academy, came from having no chef de parties. When I was young, a chef de partie was someone who could manage each section at a good level and a good pace, but nowadays a chef de partie can, on account of a shortage of more proficient chefs, go and get a job as a sous chef in a restaurant and earn a lot more money. “It was a difficult situation but also an opportunity. We thought if we’re not getting the right people through the doors, let’s grown our own.” So you’re guaranteed a job at the end of the process? “Yes, if you complete the course and training then a job is guaranteed. If you’re an apprentice and you come on board, you’re offered a great set of knives, whites, a practical cookery book, and, most importantly, a paid placement for the 12 months of the process. This earns you either an apprentice wage if you’re outside London, or, if you’re in London, we offer the minimum wage. Not many apprenticeship schemes can make that claim.” Chef Instructing Trainee In Restaurant KitchenWhat makes the learning on the Marriott Culinary Apprenticeship Academy different?   “The key thing is that 75% of the apprenticeship is in the kitchen and not the classroom.  We do this because learning must be enjoyable and most importantly hands-on to keep people engaged. The training goes from learning the basic kitchen skills – stocks, sauces etc. – right through butchery and fishmongery.  There are also field trips to top quality restaurants, so they can really see how it’s done. “Some of these apprentices haven’t been out of their own home towns, so for them to experience something like that is incredibly important for their development.” And the results have been extremely good, haven’t they? “We started off with 16 apprentices in year one and finished with ten. Following that we took on board a lot of feedback, and changed those parts of the programme that hadn’t worked as well as we wanted. “Initially the training was offered through a national provider and this entailed online practical work with visits to our hotels for hands-on cooking sessions. This worked well but had its limits for some individual sites who had always worked with local affiliate colleges for their apprenticeship requirements. “We decided that we would allow hotels the option to work with local colleges if they deemed this a more workable solution – at the moment the split is around 50/50. “We also strengthened our training and development plans, made them more robust, and held regular conference calls and meetings with the executive chefs in each site to ensure our communication was a good as it possibly could be and the learning was uniform across each hotel. “In 2012, the second year of the programme, we took on 22 apprentices and finished with 20; in year three we started with 33 and finished with 31, who’ve just graduated. This year we’ve taken on 32 and still got a couple more coming in so we’ll probably finish with 34 or 35. “So last year the completion rate of apprentices was 94%, which is incredible.” Of those chefs who have graduated, how many are still in the business?chef shortage2 “75% of apprenticeship graduates are still working for Marriott in some capacity – a fantastic statistic which has really helped us address the challenges the business was facing around retaining the best people.” Why apprenticeships? “It’s all about being able to demonstrate to a young person how they will progress through the ranks. The more skills and training you acquire and the more you are valued as an employee, the more our apprentices grow, both as people and chefs. “I’ve been at five Marriott hotels and been exec chef at four of them. It took me a long time to get there but I’ve had the development, which has made me loyal to the company. You have a one-to-one every quarter, you have a development plan every year, you get a pay rise based on performance and you get given core training.”

>>> Related article: Read more on the chef shortage here

My thanks to Sean Kelly for sharing some of his insights into The Marriott Culinary Apprenticeship Academy.  I think this is a great example of how apprenticeships and training can help with retention issues, which is especially important given that 88% of the projected 993,000 staff we need by 2022 is to replace existing staff, and that retention is emerging as a key theme in our research into the chef shortage. If you’d like to contribute to the discussion or learn more about this important industry issue, please join us for The Chef Crisis panel discussion at 3pm on Wednesday 2 March 2016 during Hotelympia (ExCeL London). To join us register for a free ticket here:

People-1st-Logo-ptp-RGB-hiResPeople 1st is the workforce development expert for the hospitality, tourism, travel, passenger transport and retail industries and works in partnership with employers to develop solutions that increase performance through people. For more information visit:, call 020 3074 1222 or tweet @p1stgroup

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Editor 2nd February 2016

The chef shortage: How apprentices are helping tackle Marriott Hotels’ retention challenge