Margareta Pagano: What's the recipe to make our teenagers fit for work?

When a top chef dismisses his trainees as 'lazy' and Pret a Manger prefers to employ immigrants, we need to find a way to get the UK's youth into jobs

Margareta Pagano
Saturday 12 May 2012 20:05 BST

What is it about men in the kitchen that makes them so outspoken? The latest to let off steam is the top chef, Marcus Wareing, who criticises the trainee cooks working for him as lazy and clueless, only interested in how many hours they have to work and having an exaggerated sense of entitlement.

Asked about the problems in running a restaurant, the Michelin-starred chef said this: "Young chefs want to be at the top but don't want to put the work in. Young people come into your kitchen judging you rather than us judging them. Do you know what? If it carries on the way it is, there's going to be no future."

Jamie Oliver said something similar last year when he described the current generation as "wet", saying he was embarrassed to look at "British kids." Are they being Ramsay-style prima donnas? Or have they seen something deeper in the way the young approach work that the heat of the kitchen shows up more sharply than elsewhere in the workplace?

Companies such as Pret a Manger have been quietly suggesting for months they prefer to employ young foreigners rather than British workers because they work harder, and for less. No one is asking why.

Along with the chefs, the only politician to stick his neck out and find out more is Boris Johnson. The London Mayor has already set up a study into why so many of the capital's youth are out of work and to ask why, in his words, " is it that immigrant workers look at a job in McDonalds or Starbuck as a stepping stone, while some who were born here apparently regard it as a dead end?" And "Is it really true that immigrants will work harder for less? Is there really a difference in the 'work ethic,' or is that an urban myth?"

It's not just Londoners who need answers to such awkward questions. Youth unemployment is at epidemic levels – at 21.9 per cent, the second highest rate in the G8 countries after Italy. Those who are not in education, employment or training – the Neets – is also at a record at around 10 per cent of those aged between 15 and 19, also one of the highest among OECD countries.

All the graduates I talk to admit they would prefer to take on unpaid work-placements at their site of choice rather than start off at the very bottom; working in a Pret or a Starbucks does fill them with horror and is seen as dead-end.

Yet so many top businessmen started out on the floor of their companies; Sir Stuart Rose, the former M&S chief executive, did so, and Andy Street, the head of the John Lewis shops started out selling giftware at Brent Cross. At Rolls-Royce, a third of its top managers began their careers as apprentices with the company and the list goes on.

So what's to be done? How can companies sell themselves better? Sir Roger Carr, the Confederation of British Industry president, is acutely aware of the youth problem and it's the hot topic of a big speech he's giving this week. He told me that companies are being encouraged to liaise much more directly with schools, to show the young that starting at the bottom can be the stepping-stone to wherever they want to go.

The celebrity get-rich-quick culture is partly to blame, he says, but there's nothing wrong with the young being ambitious either. It's just they've got to work for it, not expect it.

But there's another worry – are our teens good enough to be employed? Is Pret right – are the Poles better skilled? New OECD figures show UK educational results are low relative to spending; that our 15-year-olds are in the middle of the range between well educated and poorly. Yet, we spend more on children than most OECD countries, at just over £90,000 a child up to the age of 18 compared with an average of under £80,000. Now that is something to get steamed up about.

Calling Messrs Tata, Zetsche and Winterkorn: Lotus needs you

This is an open letter to Ratan Tata, the owner of Jaguar Land Rover, Dieter Zetsche, the boss of Mercedes or Martin Winterkorn, the chairman of Volkswagen, asking one of them to, please, send one of their sharpest suits immediately to Hethel in Norfolk.

Your deep pockets and engineering nous are needed for a James Bond-style midnight operation to rescue Lotus Cars, one of the world's top sports car makers. Although the speculation that it was about to be sold to a Chinese buyer has died down, I'm told that Lotus, part of the Malaysian automotive giant, DRB Hicom, is now suffering from a such a shortage of cash that it may have only a couple of months to survive.

It would be disastrous if Lotus closed – there are 1,200 workers at Hethel, many of them highly-skilled technicians and engineers. But Hicom still hasn't decided what to do with the carmaker.

Dato' Bin Jamil, the boss of Proton – the subsidiary which owns Lotus but is now part of Hicom – visited Hethel recently and told staff that the new owners are taking the future of Lotus seriously.

But while Mr Bin Jamil was impressed by what he saw, he would only say that if it were sold, it would be to the right owner. That's the problem – the longer Hicom leaves Lotus up in the air, the worse the situation gets; Dany Bahar, the chief executive, and his team are already meeting each day in "war cabinet"-style meetings such is the pressure.

That's why, Mr Tata and your rival Germany top marques, should be fighting over who gets to Lotus first. Auto expert and business adviser, Steve Davies, had a hard look at the Hethel works last week and also believes that in the hands of a big carmaker, Lotus can be made first-class again to sit alongside your brands such as Aston Martin and Ducatti.

You have already helped transform the UK car industry by buying Jaguar and Bentley; you know that British engineers are great at solving problems – like Lotus has done with the electric Tesla.

What are you waiting for?

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