Hands up for hands-on

6th February 1998 at 00:00
Garry Hawkes hated school so much he couldn't get out fast enough. But 40 years after leaving, at 16 and with only five O-levels, this self-confes sed "academic failure" is running one of Britain's largest catering companies. Last April he was also appointed chairman of the National Council of the National Training Organisations, the Government's top industry training advisory body.

His rise to the top of Gardner

Merchant is, he says, all thanks to sound careers advice and practical training. But he fears today's young people lack the support they need to enter the world of work.

"Without the positive advice I got from the school's careers adviser and the Careers Service, and my training at Huddersfield Technical College, I never would have made it," he says.

Mr Hawkes had no idea what he wanted to be when he left school. All he knew was that he wanted to do something glamorous. "For me the best day of the week was Friday, and the best day of my life was when I left school. But before I left I went to see the careers adviser. He asked me how I saw my future. The first thing that popped into my head was becoming a chef.

"In 1950s Sheffield you might as well have said you wanted to be a ballet dancer. But to his credit he didn't laugh at me. Instead he offered encouragement."

Mr Hawkes then went to Sheffield's labour exchange, which steered him towards a cookery course in Huddersfield. But he soon realised kitchen life was short on glamour, so he switched to cooking and management. After joining Gardner Merchant at 23, he moved swiftly up the ranks to become chief executive and then company chairman two years ago.

He is a firm believer in the power of encouragement. "Giving people motivation is vital," he says. "I have used this idea to shape Gardner Merchant."

The catering company has established its own training school at the heart of its operation, and encourages links with schools and colleges.

In support of its belief in the value of practical education, Gardner Merchant has linked up with Able To Learn - an organisation that has introduced national vocational qualifications (NVQs) into schools, and ensures on-the-job training for pupils while they are still studying (see pages 26-27). Gardner Merchant has provided dozens of placements for pupils in its kitchens.

The national training organisations (NTOs) - representative bodies for each industrial sector - were established last year with the aim of working with schools and colleges to prepare pupils for the workplace.

But Mr Hawkes remains disturbed by the lack of skilled, motivated people entering catering and other industries. He says: "The NTOs agree many students are leaving university without the necessary skills for work. Catering faces a serious shortage of young

people with the skills needed to become chefs and head waiters. Agriculture has too few people to work the combine harvesters and programme the computers that control the fields. And

in polymers, the shortage is on the manufacturing side." Mr Hawkes believes more companies should follow his example and invest in training young people.

"Companies should be working with schools and building long-term partnerships. But too many care only about short-term shareholder value. Organisations must be encouraged to act outside

of what is commercially advantageous."

With representatives from BT, IBM and Vickers on the NTO boards, Mr Hawkes believes the links between businesses and education are set to grow.Policy groups will also encourage communication between schools and companies.

All pupils should be required to spend up to six months in industry between the ages of 15 and 17, according to Mr Hawkes. And he says work placements - which often give non-

academic pupils their first chance to shine - are too short.

The NTOs are working on a computer package called Careers Explorer, which will map out the route pupils can take to their chosen career.

"Young people don't know what they want to do and have no understanding of the world of work. They are told that only A-levels represent real ability. I find that offensive," he says.

"Vocational and academic qualifications should receive equal recognition. A-levels do represent a gold standard of academic qualification, but we need

to look at how we can keep their best elements while improving practical qualifications.

"As long as people believe technical work is second-class, we will never manage to attract first-class people to practical jobs."

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