From volunteering to vocation: How Starbucks is helping young people become employable

Written by
Changeboard Team

25 Mar 2015

25 Mar 2015 • by Changeboard Team

Starbucks' employee drive

To be yourself at work and have the confidence to do so is an ambition that Lisa Robbins, UK HR director at Starbucks, wants all the coffee giant’s employees to embody. As part of its agenda to drive a spirit of inclusivity, the organisation refers to staff members as “partners”, while recruiting for attitude and training for skill are at the top of its agenda.

Having been in the role for just over a year, part of Robbins’ mission is to help Starbucks become the coffee industry’s employer of choice, a goal that she admits is ambitious. Steps so far have included plugging the future talent pipeline with service driven talent, changing the “last resort” perception of careers in retail, and becoming actively involved in community schemes to enhance the employability of young people.

“We [businesses] need to work harder on raising awareness about the careers available within our sectors and the different pathways into work,” she says.

Engaging with young people

Starbucks has around 750 stores nationally, while half of its 7,500 employees are under 25 years of age. “Our business is based on young people, so we have a real duty to help prepare them for work,” says Robbins.

While she acknowledges that Starbucks is perceived as a “cool brand” that attracts a lot of applicants, she is keen to emphasise the “responsibility”, as she sees it, of large employers to encourage young people to consider different types of careers. She believes they must help candidates gain the kinds of skills that are applicable for roles in these areas. “It’s not OK just to be complacent because we’re an attractive brand,” she says. “We need to do more – and so does the rest of business.”

Robbins’ passion is profound and she’s deeply frustrated by what she describes as the “chicken-and-egg scenario” – where if young people do not have any skills or experience, they are unlikely to get a foot in the door with employers. Part of her objective is to “think outside the box” and drive several initiatives to help young people enhance their employability.

Encouraging employment through volunteering

For the past year, Starbucks has been working closely with the London-based volunteering programme Headstart.

The scheme encourages 16- and 17-year-olds to become active in their community doing something they enjoy, while giving them the skills to succeed in the workplace.

Participants undertake 16 hours of volunteer work, then join an employability workshop to learn how their new skills can be articulated in a job interview. This leads to a guaranteed interview with Starbucks or fashion retailer New Look.

“If they are successful we can offer them a job – but this is not the driver,” insists Robbins. “We want to help young people get interview experience and tangible feedback, so they are clear about how to sell themselves – wherever they choose to work.

“We want to hire people who are enthusiastic, who think for themselves, who can work as a team and who have confidence,” she says. “Volunteering can help people develop those skills which are valuable to any workplace.” She argues that employers should look beyond “traditional” assessment methods. On-thej-ob trials, for example, give candidates the opportunity to see what life as a barista is really like, while allowing Starbucks to assess candidates’ attitudes and motivations.

In June of this year, Lord Young released the report Enterprise for All, which aims to link the relevance of enterprise in education. Young advocates the introduction of a new ‘Enterprise Passport’ – a digital record of all extra-curricular and enterprise-related activities that students participate in during education – representing a differentiator for employers seeking ‘proven’ employability skills.

Of those that complete the volunteering and employability workshops, four out of five are hired by Starbucks. Since only one in five interviewees for the company are ordinarily successful, Robbins believes this is a win-win situation for both the organisation and young people themselves. “It’s helping young people be more equipped to be successful – and to be confident about their experience,” she explains.

On the back of this success, Starbucks has guaranteed 50 jobs in the next tranche. “It didn’t take long to realise the benefit. We want to do more,” she says. Although currently limited to London, Robbins is also keen to replicate this model elsewhere. “I would love to see this expand,” she says. “We should absolutely use our scale for greater good.”

Partnering in local communities

One such community partnership is currently piloting in London, where Starbucks works closely with Westminster College to help those already in education enhance their employability skills. Experienced partners from the local districts – from store managers to district managers – offer mentoring guidance to students.

“We want to help students understand how to develop their skills for interview. Experienced leaders from the company meet students who have had no exposure to the world of work to help them understand it,” explains Robbins.

Although just three months in, she is confident about the scheme’s success and hopes to replicate it in other areas of the UK. “Feedback from the young people has been phenomenal,” she enthuses. “They feel more equipped to go out into the world of work or make a different career choice.”

As well as community partnerships, Starbucks runs its own Youth Action Programme, in collaboration with charity UK Youth. This investment programme gives seed funding, training and backing to young people running projects in their communities across the UK.

This year, Starbucks has provided over £300,000 in funding to support an estimated 150 community projects across Britain.

Robbins adds: “We have linked with the National Citizenship Service this year and expanded the programme to reach more than 10,000 under-25s. This means NCS graduates have the opportunity to build on their community project or to start a new one, supported by £2,000 seedcorn funding.” 

Influencing the influencers

Underpinning Robbins’ commitment to this whole agenda is a vehement belief that those with influence – particularly parents and teachers – must be educated in the realities of career paths so they can have more informed conversations with young people. She is particularly concerned about “old-fashioned” perceptions of the retail and hospitality sector, which she argues can be hugely damaging to young people’s career aspirations.

“People think: ‘Starbucks is OK as a holiday job but you wouldn’t want to make a career out of working there.’ I want to change that,” she says.

Starbucks’ career paths allow people to progress quickly if they are capable and have the right attitude, Robbins believes. She is keen to point out that neither background nor qualifications are limiting factors: “Anyone can become a supervisor or manager.”

She is adamant that the organisation’s route to work is about opportunity for all, with interviews for in-store positions based on attitude and service capability. Robbins is sceptical about introducing an in-store graduate scheme as she feels this might become a barrier to some people applying.

“Unless you have the right attitude and values, you won’t succeed, regardless of how experienced you are technically,” she says.

Celebrating apprenticeships

While more businesses are investing heavily in their future talent through offering traineeships and apprenticeships, Robbins believes that perceptions of vocational qualifications as “the easy option” still prevail.

Starbucks introduced apprenticeships in 2012 and will have 1,000 in place by the end of this year across the UK. “We now offer Levels 2 and 3 in hospitality and service, which is equivalent to five GCSEs at grades A*-C (Level 2) and two A levels (Level 3),” says Robbins. “I’m now seeing our first apprentices being promoted to store managers.”

She recalls a previous graduation which, like any event within Starbucks, was opened with a coffee-tasting workshop, this time led by an apprentice.

“The young lady got up and delivered the session with such passion and conviction,” says Robbins. “Her parents approached me afterwards and said: ‘We can’t thank you enough for giving our daughter a chance. We thought she would never be employable as she had no confidence, but to see her standing there because of the experience you have given her is amazing.’

“Stories like this show we are making a big difference to young people. That girl could have ended up as a NEET [not in education, employment or training] statistic, and once you’re there, it’s so difficult to get out. We’re also changing perceptions – this shows the responsibility we have as an employer to help people make informed choices.”

Global work experience

Next, Robbins is looking to introduce work experience opportunities. Meanwhile, she reveals that the coffee giant is offering a unique six-week placement for the son of one of the company’s coffee farmers from Rwanda. He will spend time in stores, with a district manager and in its support centre. Robbins is hugely excited by the initiative and hopes this will provide the impetus to introduce work experience more locally.

“His father contacted us and asked if he could come and learn more about the coffee industry,” she explains. “He sees first-hand how the beans are grown and harvested, but beyond that it’s all rather unknown.

“If we put process before judgement, we might say, ‘this isn’t possible, we don’t do work experience.’ But it’s a great opportunity to strengthen the partnerships we have with young people across the world.” 

Making change

While Robbins acknowledges the “slow realisation” among employers that businesses have to be more accountable for skills in the younger population, she argues that much more needs to be done.

“There are lots of organisations that are active in their local communities but it’s not enough,” she says, expressing concern that the recent uplift in the labour market could propel businesses into a state of “complacency” when it comes to hiring young people.

So what is her message to other business leaders on this agenda? “You can’t afford not to get involved,” she argues. “Young people are our future workforce. You can’t just rely on traditional routes into employment. People’s lifestyle changes are shaping their choices about employment and if we don’t help early on, the situation will just get worse.

“The impact I have seen in Starbucks is amazing – I wouldn’t have thought it was possible. Helping young people get into these jobs and seeing them progress is incredibly rewarding.”