Serving up opportunity at McDonalds

Written by
Mary Appleton

01 Apr 2015

01 Apr 2015 • by Mary Appleton

Engaging young people

When Jez Langhorn joined McDonald’s in 1983 as a part-time worker, little did he know that 30 years later he would still be there and running the people team. “I started as a crew member in my local store in Camberley while studying – I certainly didn’t see my part-time job turning into a career back then,” he laughs. And as someone who exemplifies career development at the organisation, Langhorn is well placed to champion progression.

Top of his agenda is engaging with young people, and – together with his team of around 100– he is rolling out a number of initiatives. The aim is to drive recruitment in McDonald’s itself but also to fulfil what he describes as a wider responsibility as a business to help unemployed young people. Throughout our discussion, Langhorn’s passion for nurturing young talent is relentless.

“It’s really tough being a young person today,” he says. “The employment market is so competitive and often young people lack the skills, knowledge or confidence to secure a job. Businesses have a real responsibility to offer opportunities to help people develop sustainable careers.”

Setting the people agenda

Langhorn worked his way up through a variety of roles including restaurant manager, area manager and director of operations, before landing the head office-based role of head of talent and education in 2006. The brief was a tough one – to work on the company’s employer reputation and ‘improve trust in the brand’ which he admits had hit an all-time low in the preceding years.

From there, he progressed within the people team. He became UK HR director in 2009 and joined the executive team in 2010 and from January this year became senior vice-president and chief people officer for McDonald’s UK with extra responsibilities across Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland and Ireland. “I’ve always had a passion for people,” he says. “And I believe McDonald’s has a great opportunity to make a difference to our people and the communities in which we operate.”

Tapping into future talent

The organisation has 1,250 restaurants across the UK and an employee population of around 95,000 – 70% of whom are aged 16-25, making it one of the biggest employers of young people in the UK. “Often, their experience at McDonald’s is their first introduction to the world of work,” says Langhorn. “It’s a responsibility we take very seriously.”

For Langhorn, this responsibility extends beyond simply giving someone their first job. It’s about providing training, development and engagement opportunities that will up-skill them for life – giving them the capability, experience and confidence needed to develop their career at the organisation or elsewhere. In recent years, this has translated into providing nationally-recognised qualifications that individuals can complete alongside their day-to-day work.

Supersizing careers

In 2013, McDonald’s invested £43 million in training and development across the UK. Everyone who joins the organisation has the opportunity to take part in structured training, covering skills such as customer service, teamwork and financial management. Combining academic study and workplace learning, the qualifications available range from certificates in maths and English, apprenticeships and diplomas to a foundation degree for restaurant managers, certified by Manchester Metropolitan University.

Participation is impressive. Since 2006, more than 55,000 qualifications have been achieved – around 20,000 of these are in maths and English. More than 16,000 people have completed intermediate apprenticeships in hospitality and catering and, since 2009, 128 people have earned a foundation degree in managing business operations, with a further 20 business managers and franchisee supervisors studying at the time of going to press.

According to Langhorn, the qualifications are highly valued since they are nationally recognised and stay on people’s CVs for a lifetime, whatever they decide to do in their career.

Beyond the classroom

Working alongside individuals from similar backgrounds who are undertaking degrees can be a source of inspiration. “We have many young people who perhaps didn’t do so well at school, but after they’ve been with us a while, their aspirations begin to widen – they see what opportunities are available and what they need to do to get there. They become very focused on getting those qualifications and skills, and that’s great to see,” Langhorn says.

Giving young people this chance is a prerequisite for responsible business, says Langhorn. Not having maths and English qualifications, for example, not only holds someone back from a skills perspective, but it can also affect their confidence.

“If 59% of young people today achieve 5 GCSEs A*-C including maths and English, that still leaves 41% who don’t, and that’s after 11 years’ compulsory education” he declares. “Employers must offer young people the opportunity to get those qualifications outside the traditional academic environment.”

The business case

Langhorn is clear of the business case behind this – skilled, motivated and engaged employees translate into customer satisfaction and, in turn, growth and commercial success. And as McDonald’s approaches 100,000 employees in the UK, the impact of the people agenda has never been more critical.

He explains: “We’ve adapted the Harvard people-profit chain. If you have people doing a good job over a sustained period of time, you’ll have happier customers who visit you more often, and higher sales and profitability. Our people benefit since we can invest more in training them.

“People are the face of our brand, so having well-trained employees who enjoy what they do is critical for our business success. How they interact with customers has a direct impact on the trust of your brand, so we can’t afford to neglect it.”

Demonstrable success

So what return has the company seen as a result of investing in young people? While Langhorn found he was ‘pushing against an open door’ in 2006 when it came to getting buy-in from the board upon launching the initiatives, he acknowledges the need to demonstrate measurable success across the rest of the business. 

“Seeing the benefits it was giving to people, the business and customers made the board want to invest further. We have measured along the way, which has been key for us,” says Langhorn.

Indeed, McDonalds’ 2013 annual staff survey showed employee commitment to the company now stands at 91% compared with 77% in 2004; employee confidence in training has risen from 86% in 2004 to 96% in 2013 and employee confidence in the brand and their employer now stands at 87% compared with 68% in 2004.

The company’s involvement in the London 2012 Olympics and Paralympics is just one example of how the apprenticeship drives standards and engagement among employees. As well as providing training for all 70,000 Olympic volunteers, many at its UK head office in London, McDonald’s also had four restaurants across the Olympic park and athletes’ village. It ran a competition to find the ‘best of the best’ crew members to work there and successful employees were given Olympics tickets and a stay in a top hotel.

“Of the 2,000 staff selected, over half were qualified apprentices. It was a real reward for our high achievers,” he says.

Future plans

Langhorn believes the reputation of McDonald’s as an employer is now ‘in a different place’ to where it was back in2006 – and credits much of this to the strength of training and development opportunities it offers.

“It’s often only when people take a look inside McDonald’s that they really get to understand what we’re like as a business,” he says. Indeed, the average length of service for hourly paid staff is 3.5 years, and for salaried business managers it’s an impressive 15. Of these managers, Langhorn estimates that 90% began their career with the chain as hourly-paid staff. “Once people are hired, they are highly engaged, which is proved by the fact they stay so long,” he adds.

How to Get Hired

Alongside huge internal focus, McDonald’s is also starting to offer support for young people who are not employed there. “We’ve done a lot of work internally around this, so the time was right to ask: ‘can we do something else to give back?’”.

Last year the company piloted its ‘How to Get Hired’ day-workshops in partnership with Jobcentre Plus and learndirect, aimed at young people who have been unemployed for more than three months. Held in McDonald’s restaurants, experts gave tips on CV writing, interviews and job hunting advice with the aim of improving candidates’ job readiness.

Participants also had the opportunity to speak to restaurant managers, franchisees and apprentices, who explain what the organisation is looking for when hiring and give an insight into what it’s like to work there. So far, three workshops have been held, giving McDonald’s valuable insight into the ways in which the company might best be able to use its scale to further support young people in the communities in which it operates.

But with around 700,000 people applying for just 30,000 vacancies at McDonald’s each year, surely the organisation has enough candidates to fill the talent pipeline? “It’s not a recruitment drive,” insists Langhorn, “it’s about opening young people’s eyes to what the world of work is like.”

So does Langhorn feel that young people lack motivation when it comes to looking for work? “Absolutely not,” he says. “But if you ask ‘how aware are young people of what careers are on offer to them?’ I’d say that’s a very different question,” he admits.

Making a tangible link between qualifications and how these translate to a career path is something Langhorn feels is distinctly absent in today’s society. “We need to help people answer questions like ‘why am I studying for this GCSE, this A-level?’ That knowledge, coupled with good work experience, will really help,” he says.

Step up your support

Having moved beyond being simply a corporate responsibility issue to a serious structural concern for HR and wider UK plc, how can employers affect change across the future talent agenda? Langhorn advises you to start small. “Firstly, have an aspirational goal of where you want to get to,” he says. “Keep it simple and aligned with your business.”

Having qualifications embedded into training programmes has worked well for McDonald’s since these are undertaken alongside employees’ day to day roles. The company has also worked closely with the sector skills council, BIS (department for business, innovation and skills) and the skills funding agency to ensure qualifications are suitable and relevant for employees and the business. As such, apprentices learn about the organisation’s community commitments, environmental policies and where its food comes from, in line with its sustainability efforts.

If you’re thinking about providing vocational qualifications, they must be high quality. “It’s not just about doing it at any cost,” Langhorn asserts. McDonald’s is accredited by Ofsted and was awarded a Grade 2 (good) rating for its apprenticeship programme in 2010.

Langhorn believes Ofsted was able to see how education is being delivered in a business environment and that companies have a role to play in improving the reputation of vocational qualifications in the UK. “It should be about what’s right for the individual – whether that’s pursuing ‘traditional’ academia or a vocational path. Change won’t happen overnight – it requires a concerted effort by a lot of companies, supported by government, to demonstrate that they’re a really valuable route.”

Business responsibility

While more businesses are investing heavily in future talent through offering work experience, apprenticeships and access to work placements, Langhorn believes what’s lacking is a co-ordinated way of demonstrating this commitment, particularly to young people themselves.

He suggests that there’s a desperate need for good quality careers advice and guidance to help bridge the gap between education and the workplace.

“Careers advice is just not good enough in this country,” he says. “We’re letting young people down. I’d love to see more companies indicating what opportunities are available in their organisation and sector, and what specific skills you need to get there.”

Influencing change

Langhorn is hopeful that the steps McDonald’s is taking with regard to future talent will help to influence perceptions of the hospitality sector, which he believes offers ‘unparalleled’ opportunities for young people but is often overlooked as a career choice.

“Good jobs are good for people,” he says. “We shouldn’t denigrate jobs, regardless of what sector they are in, as long as they provide opportunity.”

Ultimately, Langhorn recognises the need for businesses to engage with young people to help create a more optimistic future for the UK economy as we emerge from recession.

“As green shoots of recovery appear, it’s important to have motivated and engaged people who will stay with you and who see a future in your business,” he says.

“We should never be complacent. We can’t expect young people to be ready for work if they’ve never worked. But as business leaders, we can extend our support, and provide young people with training, education, growth and potential. The war for talent hasn’t gone away, it’s just changed.”