As CEOs, I believe it is our responsibility to help young people into the workplace


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In a climate where the rate of unemployed 16-24-year-old stands at 22%, I can’t help thinking that if, as the leaders of UK business, we all did our bit, we could pull together to significantly improve the outlook for Britain’s young talent.

I don't want to enter into a rant about the education system; but I will say how disheartened I am when schools focus too heavily on grade bands and university applications and not enough on ensuring pupils have the essentials to succeed in the employment world: skills such as time management, decision-making, communication and empathy.

As a growing contract caterer, a key concern of ours was to develop a pipeline for chef talent. We sought a solution that would be sustainable for the long term, which would help encourage school-leavers into the workplace, offer them development and help us give something back to the community. Last September, the 'Lex School of Talent' was born.

Partnering with the University of West London, as well as hospitality charity Springboard UK, we designed a two-year apprenticeship programme. This offered four 16-year-olds access to the skills, knowledge and experience of our top chefs (many of whom have enjoyed Michelin-starred careers before joining us), as well as the opportunity to qualify in NVQ levels 1, 2 and 3. They join on a starting salary of £16,000, with all the benefits of a full-time employee, something we are very proud of. Compare this with the £15,000 salary of the 23-year-old son of a friend, who has worked in retail for seven years. Seven years from now, our apprentices could be earning many times that amount.

They also complete comprehensive development programmes, including our Lex123, provided by talent management consultancy Learnpurple. Lex123 covers our vision and values, customer service and image - making sure our chefs obtain the right life skills for our industry. We want to do much more than just teaching them to cook and manage a kitchen.

The younger generation has had bad press recently, most poignantly following the summer riots. But our experience of those who applied for this opportunity has been very different. We have met all types of individuals from a variety of backgrounds, yet their enthusiasm, determination and drive have been quite astonishing.

These are not the lazy, disinterested individuals media coverage paints them to be. They are talented people who have a hunger to learn and want to make something of themselves; they simply need a helping hand. I wish I could have employed all 12 applicants.

Our apprentices have blossomed. Imagine them sitting down to a huge breakfast at restaurant Roast in Borough Market talking food with their chef mentors. And taking a tour of our market suppliers there - for some, it was the first time they had seen rhubarb, a loin of pork, or a butternut squash...

We believe in the generations of the future and are committed to helping them achieve dreams and aspirations. These are our prospective employees and leaders: our talent pipeline. So, as CEOs and HR professionals, I firmly believe it is our responsibility to help young people into the workplace.

I would urge all CEOs to follow suit and consider establishing a similar scheme. All it takes is a little planning and organising, plus a small investment. Yet it has the power to create a real impression on those participating and, in the longer term, change lives.

Mike Sunley (pictured) is chief executive officer of Lexington Catering



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