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Dovecote Training case study

A talent pipeline for farm-to-fork: Dovecote Park

How Dovecote Park is using apprenticeships to tackle the skills shortage of qualified butchers

Butchery is central to the business at Dovecote Park, which provides the finest British beef, veal and venison to Waitrose supermarkets nationwide. It sources its meat directly from its own land and the Waitrose producer group, priding itself on ensuring the highest standards of animal welfare and husbandry.

With 70% of butcher’s shops closed on the high street this has had a major effect on the UK’s pipeline of young butchers. “It’s a dying trade on the high street. We were struggling to recruit people and we could see the skills gap was only going to get bigger,” says Dovecote Park Training Manager, Damien McKnight.

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The company had never run apprenticeships of any kind before but decided to use the apprenticeship levy to tackle the problem head-on. “We would recruit people from supermarkets, for instance, but they weren’t bespoke to our needs so we decided to use the levy combined with some of our own best guys to train people,” he says.

The programme was launched at the end of 2016 with a cohort of eight butchers and now recruits 10 butchery apprentices every year onto the Meat and Poultry level 2 programme to ensure a consistent flow. Apprentices attend East Riding College once a week to learn the theory of the trade while practical skills are taught on-site by in-house master butchers.

“This means they learn the bespoke skills they need for the job. We are farm-to-fork so they have to be able to do certain cuts and processes and also have to learn to work in a fast-paced environment,” explains McKnight, who says the apprenticeship programme is very much part of a long-term investment in skills. It has 170 butchers working on the shop floor and while the business only has an attrition rate of eight per cent, it aims to recruit and train 10 new butchers a month to sustain the supply to the business.

Commendation and recognition

In the relatively short time it has been running, Dovecote Park’s apprenticeship programme has received considerable recognition. It was commended in the 2018 Princess Royal Training Awards, delivered by the City & Guilds Group, where judges said it was creating an “impressive talent pipeline” and applauded its commitment and investment in the long-term skills development of their staff”. The awards panel also praised its work with female apprentices and for challenging the ‘norms’ in fields such as butchery.

Dovecote Park Managing Director, Andrew McAllister, described the development of the butchery apprenticeship programme as central to the organisation’s success and added that the long-term planning, overall training structure and employee development ethos in all areas of the business also helped to clinch this award.

East Riding College crowned the company Training Champion in its 2017 internal awards and again in 2019, highlighting its social commitment to young people by supporting them outside of the working day and offering them the opportunity to earn additional in-house and external qualifications.

Dovecote Park is also using the levy to recruit and train apprentices in a number of other areas, including engineering, maintenance, mechanical, electrical and warehouse trades. These are for shop floor roles such as maintaining vital machinery and equipment. The company also makes use of leading manufacturing technology to ensure the highest quality product, made with maximum efficiency.

It has also used the apprenticeship programme to invest in existing staff in team leading, management and business improvement qualifications.

Overcoming recruitment challenges

In total, Dovecote employs around 700 people across two locations: at the original site in North Yorkshire and Skellingthorpe in Lincolnshire. While its main site has an idyllic location between the villages of Stapleton and Darrington, it isn’t well connected by public transport and this can bring its own recruitment challenges, says McKnight. “It’s a very rural location with no/not many buses so travelling to work is a big thing,” he explains, adding that being able to offer attractive, on-site training programmes is helping to address this challenge in areas such as engineering where it faces tough competition for potential talent.

To increase its recruitment reach, and ultimately broaden its talent pool, it holds open days and attends recruitment fairs where it markets its apprenticeship offering.

Dovecote Park looks for a keenness and willingness to learn as prerequisites for potential apprenticeships. “It is good if they know a bit about the business but as long as they are keen, we can train them,” says McKnight. “One of the employees from our first cohort has dyslexia and Asperger’s syndrome and has turned out to be one of our best butchers.”

Dovecote Park has put in place a rigorous review process every month which helps to keep apprentices on track and guides them in areas they might need to work on.

Dealing with the 20%-off-the-job training element potentially brings challenges to any business but McKnight says it is all about getting managers on board and then “sticking to the plan”: “If you commit to an apprenticeship programme and then find out managers can’t release staff, it leads to problems so you have to get their buy-in and ensure they understand the implications of it and organise back-up.”

McKnight cannot deny that the apprenticeship levy has increased his workload as training manager but its benefits to the business far outweigh this. “You’ve also got to get your head around how you best use a large amount of finance,” he says, urging those training professionals yet to use the levy to quickly recognise its value. “It means you don’t have to go cap in hand to ask for funding that might not be there. Those that haven’t yet used the levy also need to quickly recognise that as well as being a great way to put in place a channel for new talent, it also helps you to upskill the existing workforce.”