Why work-based learning matters: the real story of Pizza Hut

Written by Kathryn Austin Wednesday 10 February 2021
The past year has been pretty hideous for apprentice redundancies, but this inspirational story shows how you can keep work-based learning on track
Pizza Hut logo on a restaurant front

This year, National Apprenticeship Week’s theme is “Build the Future” – so it feels timely to reflect on the experiences of apprentices during the past year. We need to remind ourselves why we should be banging the drum as loud as possible to support work based education programmes and do everything in our power to protect – and in some cases rebuild – our learning platforms as a means to enable long-term business recovery.

Pizza Hut Restaurants started to develop an apprenticeship programme back in 2014 as part of the mission to professionalise careers in hospitality. In 2016, we were delighted to partner with Manchester Metropolitan and the CMI to launch the first L6 degree in Hospitality Management. Over time we introduced a range of qualifications to enable career progression from L2 up to L7.

Somewhat fortuitously, we took the decision to bring the apprenticeship training provision in-house, and in January 2020 we became directly responsible for the content and delivery for our core entry programmes. So to set the scene, in February 2020 we had just established a small education team, appointing two new trainers to deliver face-to-face content. In March, the trainers were both completing their own business inductions when lockdown 1.0 began. To put things into further perspective: on Saturday 21 March 2020, the business took over £1m – but on Monday 23 March, we took less than £30k.

For our industry, Covid-19 and the subsequent lockdowns have been a series of meteor strikes. Nearly 200 restaurants had to be quickly mothballed with only a small incoming revenue from takeaway orders.

At the time we had approximately 50 learners at various stages of their different programmes, all needing a physical workplace in which to learn as our content was mostly designed for face-to-face learning, with very few learners having easy access to computers and every one of them fearful about what the future would bring. Anyone who has a close link to the apprenticeship schemes will appreciate that even in the most stable of times it is not always easy: the programmes can be complex to administer, the students are sometimes disengaged, and in the midst of a crisis situation it would have been very easy to have given up and de-prioritised the programmes as non-business critical activity. However, we didn’t let that happen, and along with the commitment of our network of restaurant general managers we have ensured that the vast majority of our apprentices completed their programmes and it remained high on the business agenda.

Meet the apprentice

Aaron is one of our learner-leaders and a good example of why we believe workplace education needs to stay as a business priority irrespective of what Covid-19 throws at us. Aaron is a restaurant general manager in Manchester and is responsible for leading a team of 30.  He came to us with very low self-esteem; he dropped out of the university pathway and was generally unsure and pessimistic about where he was headed in life. Aaron joined us with no intention to develop a career in hospitality, but as time went on he realised he just loved the buzz and he had the benefit of a supportive and skilled manager who believed in him and rebuilt his confidence. In 2016, Aaron was brave enough to give education another try and successfully applied for our L6 Chartered Manager Degree Apprenticeship accredited by CMI.

While completing his four years of combined study and work, Aaron also progressed his career and achieved a number of promotions to become appointed a restaurant manager. I can honestly say that the highlight of 2020 was when Aaron and his cohort all successfully graduated in May – and despite juggling the constant operational changes while also finishing off his portfolio and final business project, Aaron achieved a first-class degree.

So how did Pizza Hut Restaurants facilitate work-based learning during the pandemic?

Centrally, the education team converted the course content to be online during the first lockdown, and equipped students with the appropriate technology. They regularly connected with learners and managers so that everyone involved with the programme understood what was happening. To be clear, we hadn’t any spare cash, but we do have a ‘make and mend’ mindset – so we have borrowed content from our external apprenticeship network, and our IT team trawled the system for spare bits of kit, repurposing old Chromebooks and laptops.

The local managers were absolutely critical in making our students feel supported and connected during the period of limbo and also supporting the process of kickstarting teaching as soon as the new rules were clarified. I am so proud that with very few resources we managed to keep a rolling group of 50 learners on track, 30 of which completed the course, and also finding the energy to design and launch a new Level 4 hospitality manager programme.

I would love to write that we have not suffered any redundancies but sadly two weeks ago we lost our first student in a location where we just could not redeploy. As a business we have been hit hard by Covid-19 and have had no choice but to permanently close once thriving restaurants – and as a result we have lost great people. However, we have been successful in seeing our learners through to the course’s completion and I attribute that to a few things, most of which don’t cost money:

  • A conscious commitment from all levels of leadership from the local managers to directors: we measure and discuss apprenticeship rolling data and completions at board meetings
  • Ownership of our education programmes: while bringing delivery in-house was not initially easy, it has created much greater internal understanding, accountability and engagement
  • Recognition and sharing good news: we use internal social media to celebrate the successes of our students. When the chips are down and everything seems bleak, hearing a positive drumbeat about graduations and progressions keeps everyone facing forward. During this awful time our apprentices are something to celebrate and these individual successes really matter – they make a difference to the resilience and confidence of the whole organisation

I could carry on forever, so I will close by just asking you to remember the original business case for work-based development – those reasons and needs are going to be significantly increased in a post-Covid-19 (and post-Brexit) world. For all those business leaders out there with apprentices in their organisation, please take a direct interest in your learners and give them some courage to keep going. Managing the complexities of the programme can be really taxing, dealing with unengaged students can be frustrating, and navigating the conflicting demands of hard commercial realities is difficult – but as business leaders we have to think about long-term success and the bigger picture.

Remember: we are directly accountable for the futures of people who have invested themselves not just in working, but training and building a long-term career. Cherish the moments of gold that come with the honour of being able to offer these life-changing opportunities and let that positivity fuel your organisation and help build towards future success.

Good luck for 2021, enjoy National Apprenticeship Week and together let's “Build the Future”.

Kathryn Austin is chief people and marketing officer at Pizza Hut Restaurants.

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