Pret A Manger has backtracked on plans to solve an anticipated post-Brexit recruitment crisis by offering unpaid work experience to young people – but there are warnings that the row over the sandwich chain’s scheme could make employers nervous about partnering with schools and colleges in future.
Pret had planned to offer 500 week-long work experience opportunities to 16 to 18-year-olds, as part of meeting what it called a “long-term challenge” of making hospitality roles attractive to young Brits.
The firm told a parliamentary committee in March that just one in 50 applicants to its stores was British. It said its ‘Big Experience Week’ would offer “exposure to aspects of our business including food production, customer service, social responsibility and financial control”.
But when it became clear that the roles were to be unpaid, with only free food provided, a social media storm erupted, with a number of customers threatening boycotts. The company has now said it will pay future 16 to 18-year-old interns its starting hourly salary, which is £7.85 in London and £7.65 outside of London.
Ben Willmott, head of public policy at the CIPD, said he feared the negative publicity suffered by Pret had the potential to “demonise genuine work experience opportunities”.
He said that a great deal of preparation was required even for week-long placements. “Perceiving Pret’s situation as free labour is quite disingenuous because the bigger picture is that we do need to help young people make better transitions from education into the workplace.
“We know that work experience is a good way of doing that and, with the government’s new focus on technical education, we’ll need more employers to offer work experience opportunities for young people.”
Willmott added there was a danger that fewer employers would offer work experience opportunities if they feared a similar backlash. “The most important aspect of this is that the quality of work experience is the key differentiator,” he said. “These schemes aren’t just about getting young people into the office to make the tea – they should focus on helping them learn about occupations in a meaningful way.”
As Pret was planning to partner with schools and colleges to offer the opportunities, it was not under any obligation to pay the young people involved. Internships or other placements that form part of an educational course are not subject to the national minimum wage. There are further exemptions for charities or voluntary bodies, or where the placement only involves shadowing employees rather than carrying out work.
But Charlotte Stern, professional support lawyer at Clyde & Co, said genuine internships involving individuals aged 16 and over were subject to the national minimum wage, and she advised businesses to pay careful attention to categorisations before offering internships, particularly as work status was currently a “live issue”.
Many social media users criticised Pret for linking the work experience placements to its future recruitment issues. Andrea Wareham, Pret’s human resources director, wrote in a blog on the company’s website: “Attracting British applicants is not exclusively a Pret problem, and is symptomatic of a wider cultural bias. British schools and parents don’t always take careers in the hospitality industry seriously, but they really ought to.”
The business has a large apprenticeship scheme – it has also offered 350 apprenticeships to homeless people and ex-offenders – and said it planned to attract more British staff in future by increasing recruitment advertising, using social media, doubling the intake to its school leavers programme and working with Jobcentre Plus.