Training is a vital component that butchers ignore at their peril. But with cash starting to get tight, is the sector looking to cut it out? Ed Bedington takes a look

With the growing fear of an ever-worsening recession, most businesses will be looking to cut costs and save money.

Unfortunately, previous experience tells us that one of the first things to get the chop is training – and the butchery sector is no different. “I’d like to think we won’t move away from training,” says Brindon Addy, who runs J Brindon Addy, in Holmfirth, Yorkshire, “But when times are tough, it’s one of those things you do cut back on.”

Despite that fear, however, Brindon is currently considering taking on another trainee butcher. “We’ll have them in the shop and send them one day a week to Thomas Danby and pay them £110 a week. Hopefully, at the end of the
12-month period, they’ll have a NVQ Level 2 and, if they’re any good, we’ll keep them on – or we’ll provide them with a good reference.” He says this scheme has worked well for them in the past.

Douglas Scott, chief executive of the Scottish Federation of Meat Traders Association (SFMTA), says cutting training is a mistake. “Unfortunately, when times are tough, employers look around to see what they can cut – and a lot do cut training. But that’s very short-term thinking. The last thing a football team does when things are tough is cut back on training. You need to get the most out of people and training helps with that.” Scott says they have around 260 trainees on their books, and have seen only four lose their jobs so far.

But it is not just the economy that puts some butchers off training, he says. “Unfortunately, some people still think training staff makes them more mobile and likely to disappear. Yet we still get people complaining that they are struggling to find trained staff, but they are not making the effort to train their own trainees. There are still some who just want to keep the trainees there for cheap labour.”

That said, he notes there is a growing recognition that we need to train up a new generation. “Most people realise there is not a huge supply of skilled craftsmen about, so we have got to go out and get in young people we can develop ourselves.”

For the independent sector, he adds, training is vital as it is those craft skills that allow butchers to differentiate themselves on the high street. “Everyone in the shop should be trained to cut anything that people might ask for,” he says. “That’s why the Federation has put so much resource into training.”

Ironically, when it comes to training youngsters, the costs are low, points out Jane Dale, managing director of training organisation MEAT Ipswich. “There is a lot of free training around, but people aren’t picking up on it. It’s quite hard filling it, even though it’s free – and that’s very disappointing. It’s a false economy to cut back on training, particularly when it’s free.”

She points out that training does not have to be restricted to the newer staff either. “People think that you can only train new staff, but there is no reason why you cannot train existing staff. That can cover everything from core butchery to stock rotation.”

However, there needs to be a greater focus on getting younger people into the business and solid training can only help with that. Dale says: “What really concerns me is that the average age of a butcher is 58-59 now and, with the economy, it will slow up the recruitment of young people. Companies are reluctant to take people on.”

Scott agrees, but points out that the competition is intense. “Young people are not easy to get, there’s huge demand and strong competition with other industries,” he says.

In some areas, there appears to be a greater interest in training than in others, both Scott and Dale point out. She highlights the North of England as a training hotspot, while Scott points to Northern Ireland. “There is a great desire in Northern Ireland to take any training opportunities. If we had the same desire elsewhere, we’d be really busy,” he says.

Not all butchers are turning their back on training, however. Lucianne Allen, of Aubrey Allen in Leamington Spa, says: “The last thing people should be doing is cutting back on training – those skills and knowledge are where independent retailers add value. Particularly in light of the recession, we need well-trained butchers to make the most of the carcase, so we can sell cost-effective cuts – you need that knowledge to be more efficient.”

Aubrey Allen invests a great deal of time and energy in training, she says, but the business is always seeking ways to improve. “We’re looking to set up a fuller programme – not just core butchery skills, but retail skills and computer skllls for all staff. We’re looking at every aspect of training.” The company is also looking outside its own operation when it comes to training and is about to launch a chef’s butcher academy, offering courses to catering students and experienced chefs on a variety of levels and focusing on giving them butchery skills, or refreshing their knowledge.

But is the training out there fit-for-purpose? Unfortunately, the answer is mixed. Dale points out that the courses often are not tailored to the modern butcher’s needs. “We still haven’t got the qualifications or units we need. A lot of butchers now sell cooked meats, but there are no deli units in there. They need to be changed and tailored to meet the needs of modern business.”She adds that you only have to look at the number of butchery schools in the UK, compared to catering colleges, to see that the training available is inadequate.

While some butchers may be thinking of cutting back on training in light of the recession, they might be interested to know that their rivals are doing the opposite. Sainsbury’s is pushing hard with its Apprentice Butcher scheme, providing a 15-month training programme for all staff working on its meat counters. The retailer claims the apprentices on the scheme are taught specialist craft skills, which cover other areas to improve their butchery skills even further, as well NVQ qualifications in retail. A spokesman says: “This ensures that if a colleague does leave Sainsbury’s, they will have the necessary skills to work in a butcher’s elsewhere.”

The scheme has been running since 2006 and has trained up over 200 members of staff and the retailer’s aim is to grow that number to more than 500 by 2010. So the threat to independent butchers is simple – if you do not train your staff, you run the risk of them leaving to join someone who will.

It is vital that butchers invest their time in training. Dale says the benefits are too big to miss. “After training, most people say that it’s the best thing that has happened for the company. It can increase efficiency of staff by 10%, can help the business grow, can reduce staff turnover and increase staff motivation and reduce accidents.” n



Butchers and others in the food industry could ride out the recession relatively unscathed if companies take advantage of the billions of pounds being pumped into apprenticeships, claims Jack Matthews, chief executive of sector skills council Improve. He says the government’s commitment to subsidising apprenticeships is a “great tonic in tough times” for firms looking for affordable ways to add value to their business.

“There will always be jobs in food and drink, because there will always be a demand there,” says Matthews. “But companies that want to survive – or indeed thrive – in the recession will have to respond to changes in demand. We are already seeing consumers shop around to find better value, which puts producers under pressure to lower costs while maintaining quality.

“In response, companies need to improve productivity and efficiency, which requires a higher-skilled, more able workforce. So training staff to have the right skills becomes more important than ever. Apprenticeships offer a subsidised form of employment and training; companies can access funding to take on and train staff in the skills they need to improve productivity and remain profitable, despite the economic slump.”

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