Compass serves up new menu for skills

Training the 1.5 million people working in the UK hospitality sector poses three big obstacles for employers.

Most have fewer than a dozen people on each site, making many workplace courses unviable. The sector lacks a widely recognised and valued qualification structure, so there is little incentive to complete the courses. And high labour turnover often means there is insufficient time to complete courses before employees leave the company.

As a director of People 1st, the new sector skills council for the hospitality, leisure, travel and tourism sector, these challenges are all too familiar to Mike Burton. And as UK HR director of Compass Group, he faces the added hurdle of trying to establish a generic training programme across 28 operating companies that run everything from school and workplace canteens, to railway station snack bars and motorway service station restaurants.


Compass is the biggest catering company in the world, and the ninth largest employer. Growth over the past two decades has been meteoric, fuelled by a spate of acquisitions and the merger with Granada nearly five years ago. Since 1987, its workforce has grown from 20,000 to 400,000. A quarter is based in the UK and, until 18 months ago, the group left the responsibility of designing and implementing training to each subsidiary. That all changed when Compass’s vision statement was rewritten to reflect its new identity, which is now summed up as: ‘great people, great services, great results’.

Burton’s task has been to apply this statement to selling Compass as the first choice employer in the hospitality sector. This is not only intended to make recruitment easier, but also to help reduce labour turnover, which at some sites is as high as 90% a year.

“We came up with the strap line ‘great people, real opportunities’,” says Burton. “We wanted to say there are opportunities in Compass Group, and here is what they are. Over the past 18 months, we have been launching a joined-up training and development package.”

The package covers eight opportunities that the company is committed to giving employees. They include receiving a high-quality induction programme, and recognition for performing well. Another is being encouraged to learn and grow as an individual. This is largely based on an in-house training programme that starts with a taster course for school pupils (see box overleaf) and extends through to grooming potential candidates for a place on the board.

Success is mostly measured through staff surveys and, in the case of trainee managers and directors, the return on investment on any business research projects they undertake. Another key indicator is the proportion of vacancies that are filled internally. This has risen from 10% to 25% since December 2003. There has also been a 5% reduction in staff turnover to around 50% over the same period, generating around £7m worth of savings in recruitment, training and associated costs worldwide, and £1.5m worth in the UK.

Burton attributes nearly half of this reduction to the basic training package, saying that the latest staff satisfaction survey reveals that this is even rated above higher pay.

“The top three priorities at the moment are giving greater recognition to our staff for a job well done, better communication and access to training,” he says.


The basic training programme for new recruits is called Vision and Values, and it is not tied to any national training scheme.

All 10 modules are interactive and can be delivered on a one-to-one basis, or in groups of up to 20 people. This is because the size of each business unit varies considerably throughout the group. They last for half-an-hour to two hours, and are designed so that the unit manager can introduce them to fit in with work patterns. Areas covered include team-working, customer service and the power of the group’s brands.

“We wanted to design short, interactive training sessions that can be delivered by unit managers or their deputies in small groups,” explains Burton. “The intention is to make them focused, light and fun.”

Where business units are very small, new recruits join up with other units and the group’s 12-strong team of mobile trainers provide the necessary instruction. Access to training materials should be improved by increasing the proportion of units connected to Compass’s intranet service from 40% to 80% by the end of the year. Over the past year, Compass has spent £3m designing and developing new training materials.

The training department, which employs 37 people, costs a further £2m a year to run.


Once the basic programme is completed, employees can then progress to a team leader or supervisory training package. Training for line managers takes around six months and involves a combination of off-site and on-site training. The subjects covered include business systems, leadership and food hygiene. Some of the modules are tailored to the specific needs of each business.

Employees earmarked for senior management positions are selected and put through one of three programmes that are common throughout the group. At each stage, they choose a mentor who is usually a seasoned manager with good contacts throughout the organisation.

“They won’t be your boss, so it’s a risk-free way of being able to ask dumb questions,” says Burton. “We try not to over-formalise this arrangement but, equally, we want people to know that there’s guidance and support there if they want it.”


The first programme, called Meridian, is designed to prepare unit managers for promotion to operations managers who are responsible for around 20 business units.

“One of the spin-off benefits is the networking that takes place, so people find out about opportunities in other parts of the business,” says Burton.

The top 20% of operations managers are groomed for the role of operations director through the Panorama programme, which develops skills such as leadership and how to motivate people. Three have been run so far with a total intake of more than 200 people. Business research projects undertaken by them have generated estimated savings of £3m.

The final programme, called Summit, is designed for the top 10% of operations directors, who are seen as potential managing directors.
“It relies on some outside experts coming in, but primarily, we use our own people – including people from our own board,” says Burton.

Only one of these programmes has been run so far, so it is still too early to measure its success through levels of internal promotion. However, one research project into the development of a weekly labour productivity reporting system is proving invaluable. It shows the relative efficiency of each site by measuring factors such as holiday, sickness and overtime costs, as well as the amount of agency workers being used.

Burton says Compass’s commitment to providing employees with opportunities to learn and grow is not confined to work-based training and preparation for promotion.

“We make it easy for them to get involved in other things such as programmes in the community,” he says.

An example of this was giving employees paid holidays to work in Oxfam shops to help with fund-raising for the tsunami disaster.

“We also give community excellence awards each year, where someone could pick up £20,000 for their community project, because the judges recognise what they are doing,” adds Burton.


Sport is another area where he feels there are potentially valuable lessons to be learned, particularly as much of Compass’s work is with some of the country’s major sporting arenas.

“It’s very infectious, and I think that’s why taking a sporting analogy with leadership works for us,” says Burton.

“I often think that if you can take people away from their industry, they can often see things they can apply within their job. They are more likely to think outside the box than doing things the way our policies suggest they should be done.”

In January, former England rugby coach Sir Clive Woodward outlined his tips for success during a two-and-a-half hour presentation to the group’s top 80 managers.

Burton says he often looks to sports men and women for inspiration, encouraging Compass’s trainers to remember the focus and dedication that athletes need to win races.

“I often think it’s to do with stripping back the things that might stand in the way of achieving your goal,” he says. “That means being clear about the skills that someone needs, and then delivering those skills in the most effective way you can.”

How the academy works

The comprehensive range of training programmes at the Compass Group are collectively managed under the umbrella of the Compass Academy.

The Compass Academy is a virtual place of learning designed to acknowledge career progression, from 14-year-olds on voluntary courses right through to board directors honing their management skills.

Prompted by the skills shortage within the industry, the academy plays a vital role in encouraging young people to begin a career in hospitality sector and then helping them progress through cohesive, relevant, on-the-job training, gaining nationally recognised qualifications.

Young people keen to learn about cookery can join the Junior Chefs Academy, a Saturday morning cooking club for 14 to 16-year-olds set up with Thames Valley University and four further education colleges. Between 40-50% of academy trainees go on to take full-time hospitality courses with potential job opportunities available at Compass.

Many Compass employees begin their development through Modern Apprenticeships, achieving NVQ qualifications. Compass runs one of the largest MA programmes in the hospitality industry, and works hard to retain its staff through a programme of craft development and management skills.

Management courses – Meridian, Panorama and Summit – are in place to provide stepping stones for employees to reach director level and beyond. Employees dedicated to craft are encouraged to work towards becoming an executive chef, with many opportunities to compete at national and international level along the way.

Training continues throughout Compass, and all managing directors, board directors and CEOs involved in the Achieving Our Common Future development programme.

In time, each member of staff will receive a personal Compass Academy portfolio, which will ensure that their achievements are recognised both within Compass and externally.
Are vocational qualifications de-valued?

Burton argues that although there is a real need for an industry-recognised structure of qualifications, NVQs do not at present provide the answer.

“They have lost their value with many employers, and certainly with us,” he says.

He blames competition from numerous other qualifications and courses connected with hospitality. “My view is that people are not guided to the right programme at the appropriate age,” he adds. “We have 700 people going through the modern apprenticeship scheme but, unfortunately, only 16% will ever complete the course. That’s typical of the national figures.”

People 1st, the skills sector council, supports this assessment, stating in a report published in December that “employers have reported confusion over the plethora of qualifications that now exist”.

It is overseeing a complete shake-up in vocational qualifications for the sector from next year. This will probably lead to in-house schemes such as Compass’s being incorporated into a nationally recognised structure of training.

Tony Holyland, head of vocational training at People 1st, says: “The real benefits from this are increased flexibility and government recognition of all the really good in-house learning that takes place. Compass is a very good example of this.”

CV: Mike Burton

2004 Trustee, Springboard, the hospitality careers service
2002 Director, People 1st
1999 HR director, Compass Group
1997 HR director, Argos
1992 Personnel director, Burton Group
1989 Business psychologist, Interactive Skills
1984 HR manager/rewards and benefits director, Grand Metropolitan
1979 Graduate trainee/personnel manager, Peugeot

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