It is good news that the US coffee chain Starbucks is to create 5,000 jobs in Britain over the next five years, as part of expansion plans which include the creation of 200 drive-through coffee shops. Added to the chain's 700 existing high-street outlets, it will make the world's largest coffee-shop operator also the biggest in Britain. More significantly, since about 70 per cent of Starbucks' employees in the UK are under the age of 24, the move will create new jobs which will go predominantly to young people. With more than a million people between the ages of 18 and 24 now unemployed – the highest since records began 19 years ago – new jobs in a relevant sector are particularly welcome.
And Starbucks is not alone in its apparently counter-recessionary expansion. Not only has the brewery chain Marston's pledged to build another 25 pubs over the next year, creating 1,000 new posts. Its Suffolk-based rival, Greene King, which owns the Hungry Horse and Loch Fyne chains, is also adding some 3,000 jobs to the 800 apprenticeships it has already created thanks to the company's last growth spurt.
Growth. Expansion. Jobs. It all sounds like good news for Britain's moribund economy. And it is. But it is not great news.
Both posh coffee and pub meals are what market analysts call "affordable treats". Sales go up in difficult economic times, as cash-strapped consumers look for compensation for curbs on general spending by substituting small indulgences. But the boost to pub food only comes at the expense of more pricey restaurants from which the public have downgraded, so the picture is not entirely rosy.
That's not all. The larger issue is that neither the way out of recession, nor the way towards global competitiveness, lie in jobs pouring coffee. Expansion in the cheaper end of the leisure sector is, of course, welcome because it means jobs for people who might otherwise be unemployed. But such growth does not create wealth in the way that it would in the research, engineering or manufacturing sectors. Nor is it offering our youngsters much in the way of skills. Sadly, Starbucks and similar cannot save the British economy.