A 27-year career with McDonald’s is not a common stepping stone for a job as a senior civil servant. But Sue Husband says that her time working for the fast-food giant has prepared her well for her role as director of apprenticeships and delivery service at the Skills Funding Agency (SFA).
Husband began a Saturday job behind the till at McDonald’s while she was preparing for her A levels, and she immediately fell in love with it. “On the first day that I worked there, I was thrown in at the deep end, and I took the most money on the till,” she says. “It sounds a silly thing now, but I went home and I felt like, ‘I am really good at this.’ Within a few weeks, they had me cashing up. And three months in, I was doing the payroll on a Sunday.”
Husband draws parallels between her early career at the US firm and the apprenticeship programme that she now spearheads.
“I was in a company where I could see that if I worked hard, they would help develop me and help me progress,” she explains. “I liked the variety of the people that I was surrounded by because I had been very lucky and had a privileged upbringing, while a lot of the people I was working with had not. I liked that work allowed them to better themselves.”
When she finished school, Husband decided to work full time, rather than going to university. “That was a choice I made,” she says. “I started working and I just thought, ‘I don’t think I want to go to university.’ I comfortably just slipped into it.”
The road less travelled
Husband quickly rose through the ranks of the organisation. By the age of 22, she was running a restaurant with 150 staff and a £2 million turnover. In her final role at the fast-food chain, as head of education for the UK, she helped set up its education programme – from an initial focus on improving the literacy and numeracy skills of the workforce through to an apprenticeship scheme and foundation degree.
She took up her current role at the SFA in 2014. “In my working life I knew I got pleasure from seeing someone come in as a shy 16-year-old, but then see them six months down the line being really confident and training the next 16-year-old coming in. So I thought that this could be a way of doing even more. And on a personal level I liked the idea of going from an American, corporate-driven organisation to the civil service. It is a huge difference, but there are some similarities I didn’t expect.”
While Husband says that she has worked with “brilliant” people in both organisations, the social divide is “quite stark”. “In my old job, most people I worked with had a very diverse background and a lot of them had not been particularly fortunate. In the civil service, you are more likely to come across people who had a more straightforward route through education. I am most impressed in the civil service by how committed people are.”
Working with confidence
The current focus for many of her colleagues at the SFA and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (Bis) is how to meet the government’s targets of creating three million apprenticeships during the current Parliament. But Husband is optimistic that the goal will be reached: “It would be silly of me to say it is not going to be tough, but I am very confident that there are so many people with a vested interest that we can do it.”
The apprenticeship levy – which will involve large companies offering a proportion of their payroll bill towards apprenticeship funding – will be key to the scheme’s success, Husband believes. “We will know how much money we will have to fund apprenticeships and that will help us continue that drive to increase quality and engage more businesses,” she says, adding that the National Apprenticeship Service would inform and support businesses on how to make the best use of the funding.
Some businesses will reap benefits larger than the amount of levy that they pay into the system, she adds, particularly those that have already invested in an apprenticeship scheme, the value of which was larger than the levy that they would have to contribute to. “And that is where we have said that there could be the opportunity to top that up. But there will be some businesses that are the other side of this, particularly if you look at organisations that have a high average.”
As well as making employers feel more connected to the apprenticeship scheme, the levy will help improve the quality of apprenticeships, says Husband. “Employers that weren’t involved are seriously thinking about how they do this. They really want a programme that is fit for purpose. First and foremost, businesses have a clear idea of how they run well and what they need for the business to be successful, and they are not suddenly going to change that just to get some tax back.”
For Husband, creating a truly employer-led system will bring many benefits. “If an apprenticeship programme is truly embedded and becomes part and parcel of how a business brings talent into the organisation – that is when we know that the apprenticeship brand is working,” she says.
CV: Sue Husband
1976-1982 Llysfaen Primary
1982-1987 Howell’s School
1987-1989 Llanishen High School
Career at McDonald’s:
1987-1993 Crew member
1993-1995 Restaurant manager
1995-1996 Secondment in training
1996-1998 Area supervisor in Birmingham
1998-2003 Operations consultant for restaurants in South Wales
2003-2006 Franchisee consultant for franchisees in South Wales
2006-2007 Communications department
2007-2014 Set up and ran the McDonald’s education department
Career after McDonald’s:
2014-present Skills Funding Agency, director of apprenticeships and delivery service