Jamie Oliver: Why I Hire Ex-Cons and Drop Outs

Last Updated Mar 15, 2011 11:40 AM EDT

Why would an internationally renowned chef hire an ex-con with no skills or experience to work at top restaurant? This is the question we explore on Day 2 of the Conscious Capitalism tour, in which a group of MBA students, a strategy professor and myself are visiting socially-conscious enterprises in London.

Today we had an extravagant lunch at FIFTEEN, the London restaurant created by Jamie Oliver, the Naked Chef star, and we met Will, one of the restaurant's apprentices. He is an ex-con who had no qualifications and zero restaurant experience but he'd been sent to the interview by his probation officer -- which meant he stood a chance.

Every year FIFTEEN takes on eighteen unemployed young people like Will who have no qualifications or meaningful work experience. They may have criminal records and poor social skills. They learn everything from the basics of kitchen hygiene, routine and order to preparing complex and sophisticated dishes made in the high-pressure environment of a fashionable London restaurant. A six-day week includes college classes, personal development, training in artisan skills like butchery and bakery as well as working kitchen shifts. "We work them very hard," says Nikki Giles who helps administer the scheme. When their year is up, the graduates move on to careers in kitchens all over the capital.

Just last year, one of them - Tim Siatadan - opened his own restaurant.

This all sounds great - it is great - but it doesn't come cheap. Training each apprentice costs $48,000: money for tools, mentors, travel, salary, sometimes dental work or healthcare. The fabulous antipasti we wolfed down were served for one reason only: to generate the profit necessary to fund the training scheme. That Oliver is a well-liked celebrity chef draws people to eat in his establishment, but they enjoy it because the food's good and because there's a meaningful purpose behind it that goes far beyond food.

The work and training the restaurant gives to young people provides the order, routine and structure that apprentices like Will need to get their lives together, to improve their relationships with their families, to reduce crime, homelessness and long term social ills.

That's what makes it a social enterprise: because its aims are profit but not only profit. Its central purpose is a social one. And so, in January this year, when the organization analyzed its Social Return on Investment (SROI) it was able to demonstrate that in an average financial year the total benefits of the programme - to the apprentices, their families and to civil society - was worth more than $7 million. That's a big impact from just 18 trainees.

Now putting a cash price on a social benefit is a tricky exercise and there are many that argue you shouldn't even attempt such a thing; the true value of getting young people into jobs and careers goes far beyond cash. But however you value it, the restaurant offers some lessons any business leader would do well to absorb.

Talent is Everywhere
When he first joined the scheme, Will wasn't the kind of employee most managers would even interview. No training, little education, no skills. But the experience of work, intensive mentoring, routine and training has changed his experience of life and of himself.

Some 75 percent of graduates go on to successful careers - a remarkable rate for the very people so many other institutions have given up on. FIFTEEN works, says Oliver, because it gives young unemployed people a taste of their own potential. There is always more to most people than we ever give them credit for; I wonder how many of us bother to find out what it is. Percy Barnevik, the esteemed former CEO of ABB, once said he reckoned most companies used just 5 - 10 percent of their employees' potential. And those were the ones that were easy to hire.

Work is a Privilege
Sitting in your office today, tired and fed up, it may not feel like work is a privilege but it is. From it derives a big part of our self-esteem, identity and sense of purpose. Just being employed improves mental and physical health; being unemployed does just the reverse. It's easy to whine and grumble about our work but we wouldn't want to be without it. "I feel happy feeding people," says Will. "My relationship with my Dad has improved. It can be hard, doing the late hours, doing all the studying. But it's great having a job."

Business is Social
Not every company can or wants to do what Jamie Oliver is doing. It's tough work, labor intensive, emotional, risky and expensive. But anyone leading a team or an organization is making a social impact by dint of providing employment, a sense of belonging, of purpose, bringing meaning and order in life. I wonder: what social return on investment does your company make? Could you make it higher?

Illustration courtesy of Wikimedia
  • Margaret Heffernan On Twitter»

    Margaret Heffernan has been CEO of five businesses in the United States and United Kingdom. A speaker and writer, her most recent book Willful Blindness was shortlisted for the Financial Times Best Business Book 2011. Visit her on www.MHeffernan.com.

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