College places its bets on new work opportunities of Britain's answer to Las Vegas, writes Martin Whittaker
Corporate team building exercises come in many guises, from paintballing weekends to walking across hot coals. But one college is gambling on a new approach to staff development - by letting its employees loose on the poker tables.
So far nobody has lost their shirt - in fact both staff and students come away winners. Blackpool and The Fylde College is the first in the country to train casino croupiers, using a mocked-up gaming room with roulette wheels, poker and blackjack tables.
The college decided to test its trainees' dealing skills by running a "fun casino" for staff development week. "No real money changed hands, and apart from learning that gambling doesn't pay, staff gained some valuable skills," says Maggie Dollin-Evans, the college's head of tourism, leisure and hospitality.
"They were taught roulette, poker and blackjack, and then in teams they aimed to win the most money," she says. "They learned about working together towards a target, working out strategies, and they picked up numeracy skills."
If developers in Blackpool have their way, college staff will soon have plenty of opportunities to try their luck at the card tables. A master plan for development of the town aims to turn it into Britain's answer to Las Vegas.
In recent years the resort, best known for its tower and six miles of illuminations, has seen a sad decline because of cheap air travel. Visitor numbers have halved in the past decade. The number of hotels has fallen by nearly a third since 1996, and unemployment is between 9 and 14 per cent.
Multi-million pound plans for its regeneration, including five new resort casino hotels, are expected to create 14,500 jobs, over half of them in gaming. Blackpool is also banking on proposed legislation which would relax the gaming laws and make it easier for new casinos to attract visitors.
Eyeing these changes, Blackpool and The Fylde College spotted a need for training. Three years ago its senior management went on a fact-finding visit to the United States gambling Mecca Atlantic City, which has undergone a similar regeneration.
But, while the New Jersey resort built 12 new casinos, it failed to put the training in place and faced a big skills gap.
Learning from Atlantic City's mistakes, Blackpool and The Fylde launched the course for croupiers with a BTEC advanced diploma in casino operations.
The college has developed coin slot technician courses up to Higher National Diploma level 4. And as a Centre of Vocational Excellence in customer service, it is well-placed to provide training for a range of jobs in the new-look resort.
"If we are going to make sure when the casinos are built that jobs are for Blackpool people, we need to start training now," says Maggie Dollin-Evans.
"It's not just the lower-level jobs but also supervisory and managerial positions."
The college has just finished piloting the 12-week croupier's course, and most of its students have jobs lined up in local casinos. A newly-trained croupier can expect a starting salary of around pound;18,000.
On the college's simulated gaming floor, trainee croupiers are brushing up on their techniques with the roulette wheel before being "table tested" at the end of their course.
Trainees learn poker, roulette and blackjack, dealing skills, and customer service as well as the legal, economic and social sides of the gaming industry. But don't you need to be a bit of a card sharp to start with? "No, not at all - that's what I'm here for," says their tutor Wendy Bradley. "Once you've learned the basic skills, how to handle the chips, how to handle the cards, the rest of it...I won't say it's easy, but it's easier than most people think it is."
She started working in casinos aged 19 and has since worked as a croupier throughout the world. What qualities does she look for in new trainees?
"They have to be outgoing - personality is the biggest thing in this job.
Hand-eye co-ordination is a big plus, and mental arithmetic. Also, you can't be colour blind."
Blackpool and The Fylde also intends to start an evening class to teach the public the tricks of the gaming tables. But aren't they simply encouraging gambling?
Maggie Dollin-Evans insists otherwise. She says the college's courses will educate people about the realities of gambling and give them an understanding of the odds. "You very quickly learn that you can't win - the odds are stacked in the casino's favour, not the punter's. Once you learn the skills, you learn that you just lose money."
If that is the college's message, not all the trainees are listening.
Robert Gomm, aged 19, from Blackpool says he hopes to become a professional gambler. "I have only been in a casino once and that was on this course just to have a look around," he says. "Horse racing is my main interest, but this has been a very interesting course to learn about the games."
Fellow trainee Jonathan Marsden, aged 29 from Lytham St Anne's, says he has been gambling since he was 16 and now has a job lined up in a casino. "I feel that if I went into a casino now and had to deal for real money, I would feel confident I could handle that," he says. "I'll get some experience behind me and eventually I want to get on the cruise liners and do some travelling.
"Also, it's about time I got some money back. I'd rather be working for casinos than gambling in them."