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“Apprenticeships are not just good for the young people we bring in, but good for the health and fitness of our business”

In this guest blog for National Apprenticeships Week 2021, restaurant founder Iqbal Wahhab discusses how the recovery of the hospitality sector in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic opens up new opportunities for businesses to reduce local unemployment levels, bridge skills gaps through apprenticeships, and put people at the centre of their work.

12 February 2021

Sparkling glassware stands on long table prepared for wedding dinnerOne day soon, the hospitality sector will dust itself down and do what we love doing – making magic happen; seeking to delight our customers with friendly service, their favourite dishes and providing a place to enjoy life with people you like to be with.

This time round though, things are obviously going to be different. COVID-19 closures have left many of our overseas employees return to their countries of origin and Brexit too will turn the flow down on our talent pipeline. Hospitality operators have in the past, cynically, thrived on the sources of, let’s face it, cheap labour which came with the added bonus of a strong work ethic.

We justified taking them on at lower rates than we would otherwise have to pay for home-grown talent by saying young Brits were “too lazy” to last the conditions foreign workers didn’t begrudge.

Previously such observations and accusations have largely been ignored but time has been called on that callous approach. Put simply, the hospitality sector has to rebuild itself without the false props we relied on in the past.

I’m hopefully returning to restaurants this year and one thing is clear: it is a big mistake to assume that we just fill the new vacancies that we’ll have with people who have found themselves made redundant in the last 12 or so months. I’m very lucky that I haven’t had any restaurants to “build back better”. Instead, I shall instead be able to simply build better and one of the ways we are going to put our people at the centre of what we do through our collectively shared purpose is to be inclusive and responsible employers.

National Apprenticeships Week is extremely timely as operators plan to rebuild their teams and prepare for what we hope is the road to recovery. Front and centre of that process has to be a commitment to our youth. Somewhat negatively, we can’t risk unemployed young people drifting out of the mainstream and drifting into drugs and crime. More positively, we can build teams with people from the towns and cities in which we are based. Apprenticeships are a great way to bridge the skills gap between what we need and the current state of preparedness that many isolated but eager young people find themselves positioned.

The opportunity for many can now be made even easier with the Apprenticeship Levy scheme, whereby big firms who have effectively paid a tax to attract new talent into their organisations can now use any surplus funds that have been generated to support SMEs by funding their own apprenticeship programmes. I’m hoping to do this through Catch22 to take that pain out of the process by having the £4,000+ cost of training each apprentice now not coming out of our own budgets.

Whilst the retail sector continues to see its bricks and mortar presence face possibly terminal decline, the same will largely not hold true of hospitality and in that we take hope. The advances of technology may lead to many job losses elsewhere, but the public will always want to physically be part of a space where interaction and interdependence re-affirm our human nature. Let’s make sure that our part in that process sees apprenticeships as not just good for the young people we bring in, but good for the health and fitness of our business as we embrace the new spirit of the age – which is one of interconnection.

Iqbal Wahhab is the founder of London restaurants The Cinnamon Club and Roast and is planning some new ventures later this year.


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