HR’s big gamble: sector focus on casinos

The UK’s first super-casinos are set to open in 2007, but how are HR professionals in this controversial sector squaring up to the challenge? Virginia Matthews reports.

It’s a business that draws in almost three-quarters of the population, is popular with the Royal Family, and is constantly finding novel ways to attract punters via the internet, digital TV and mobile phones.

Gambling is big news in the UK, and aided by its deregulation last year, it is growing fast. The Millennium Dome in south-east London is just one of the names on a shortlist for the UK’s first Las Vegas-style ‘mega-casino’, while a further 16 licences for smaller casinos across the UK are set to be granted.

The Gambling Act 2005 has turned the industry into just another branch of the leisure market, with all the skills and staffing issues that entails. There are a number of challenges ahead for HR managers in the sector. In May, a group of HR professionals met with government-appointed regulators to hammer out controls on the industry.

One of the key issues they intend to deal with is corporate social responsibility. Workers in the industry will need to be trained to recognise the signs of problem gambling and intervene if someone has a problem – for example, individuals trying to borrow money from other customers or ‘chasing losses’.

Solutions might range from simply talking to the individual and making sure they know where help is available, to barring them from an entire chain of outlets.

In the spotlight

Although operators grumble that UK betting and gaming is one of the most heavily regulated sectors in the world, HR professionals believe that the new spotlight being cast on the business will ultimately be good for staff, as well as profits.

Neal Young, group HR director at giant Gala Coral, believes that despite its sometimes shady image, gambling has much to be proud of. It might come as a surprise to hear that the sector attracts a large number of graduate recruits each year, either as temporary croupiers or potential management trainees.

“The betting and gaming sector needs to come of age in the recruitment market and show people that it is already a very professional employment sector,” says Young. “We are leading the way in trying to demonstrate that the business is a bone fide career opportunity – not just for younger people, but for everyone with an interest in taking a bet.”

HR multiplier

Although social responsibility makes headlines, the bigger operators say they have already made enormous strides in complying with regulators and that it is gambling’s new, more open image that is more significant in the long term.

Since deregulation, says Vince Jewitt, head of regional operations in the south for Stanley Casinos, the roulette wheel and blackjack table have seen a remarkable influx of women and younger couples – a trend he hopes will continue. A diverse mix of staff will promote this trend.

“People come into casinos thinking everyone is going to be a James Bond-type in a tuxedo or an upper-class twit, but the many misconceptions about gambling are something we wish to correct,” says Jewitt.

Ros Barker is HR director at Ladbrokes, which has more than 2,000 betting outlets nationwide. She believes staff retention is her biggest challenge.

“HR has always been a high priority in the gaming and betting sector because of its big retail presence on the high street and the fact that it employs thousands of qualified people,” she says.

“Developments in e-gambling are attracting a more IT-savvy generation of employees who see us as a happy hunting ground for jobs. While lots of bright young people are finding their way to us via an interest in sport or gambling, many are reluctant to stay for longer than a couple of years – and that is certainly a challenge.”

In a sector where technical skill as well as all-round numeracy is highly prized, promoting existing qualified staff is more cost efficient than attracting raw talent, says Barker. Of a staff of 14,000, the firm promotes around 5,000 people internally every year.

The job functions in gaming and betting are in many ways the same as in any other big, systems-driven retail business, including HR, finance, marketing, high-profile IT work and the ever-present security.

Unique to gambling though are the front-of-house croupiers, who work shifts during casino opening hours of 2pm to 6am and are judged on the number and quality of the games they deal. Behind the scenes are the ‘traders’, who specialise in odds compilation or liability management.

Hitting the jackpot

At Ladbrokes, between 10 and 20 graduates are recruited each year and seconded to the retail operation, to internet and TV gambling, and to either marketing, HR or telephone work. “We see ourselves as being very much part of the leisure sector, even though we’re an adults-only industry,” says Barker. “And while we continue to work closely with the Gambling Commission on social responsibility, it is important to remember that the UK has the lowest number of problem gamblers in the world.”

While deregulation entails a more prominent role for the regulators, it will also mean HR managers have to be more proactive in the way they manage talent.

“Lots of people become croupiers as a stopgap after university because it is fairly easy to pick up and can be well-paid, but HR’s job is to identify those with the potential to make senior croupiers or junior managers,” Barker adds.

“HR has become more important to us in the past couple of years as the industry has expanded and all operators have begun to fish from the same pond.”

Surprisingly though, he adds, mobility is rare among those who make betting and gaming into a long-term career. “Of the 13 casinos I look after, I have only one general manager with a non-casino background – and he’s from bingo.”


Legal Q&A: Gambling at work


Gambling Commission


-‘Super-casinos’, or large casinos, will span at least 1,500 square metres, and have the right to operate 150 machines with jackpots of £5,000. The Gambling Act 2005 also made provision for one, all-day, Vegas-style gambling palace, with a licence to include 1,250 slot machines, each with an unlimited jackpot. The first casino is due to open by December 2007. It is thought that the new casinos planned for the UK could create as many as 100,000 new jobs.

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