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PSC Week promotes public sector as viable career choice for young people

23rd May 2024 - 07:00
Phil Shelley, chair of the Hospital Food Review
The fourth day of Public Sector Catering Week (20-24th May) was a chance to hear from people working across public sector catering about how they started, the roles they do now and to find out first-hand about the career options and benefits on offer.

The Careers Day will see a focus on promoting the public sector – schools, hospitals, universities, care homes, prisons and the MoD - as a career option for young people.

Public sector catering is often said to be one of the best-kept secrets in the world of hospitality. Most young people who think about taking an intertest in food and cooking into the world of work, will have in mind restaurants and hotels. Perhaps, if they then do well, the dream extends to running their own restaurant.

And there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that if they do then win a place on a college catering course many of the lecturers they meet there will encourage them to look into the retail sector of pubs, restaurants and hotels. The option of a career elsewhere, by inference, is seen as inferior.

Attitudes may be slowly changing, but there is a lot the public sector still needs to do to attract enthusiastic trainees, apprentices and young chefs to look in their direction.

Molly Shaher, the chair of the Professional Association of Catering Education (PACE), often speaks about the willingness of large pub and restaurant chains to visit catering colleges and to offer work experience in their kitchens.

To compete for this talent, she wants caterers in hospitals, universities and care homes to do the same and expose young students to the realities of working in the public sector. And that reality may turn out to surprise them, especially if they have already worked in a busy restaurant kitchen, for example.

There are no split shifts, fewer evening and weekend hours, and often the chance to cook from scratch with fresh ingredients that may never come their way working for a busy pub chain.

On the Public Sector Catering website we have begun a series of ‘career story’ interviews with senior figures in the industry who talk about how they came into public sector catering, how fulfilling they have found the work, and what they advise anyone who is thinking of joining.

One of the first was in the interview series was Phil Shelley, the senior operational manager for soft FM and national lead for Net Zero Food with NHS England.

He was all set for a career in the Merchant Navy, but events took a turn for the unexpected and he began instead to work as a chef in hotels and restaurants before finding his calling feeding hospital patients, staff and visitors.

His advice to anyone wondering about what they would get out of working as a hospital caterer, or anywhere else across the public sector, is: “Be brave and take that step. Don’t think about what you often hear, because it can be quite negative. Go and speak to people who have experience, and not just in food, but dietitians and nurses because that working relationship we now have means they will tell you how important your role is.”

Another was David Oliver, who recently stepped down as the head of prison catering in England and Wales. He was ready to try becoming a professional footballer before his catering career took over after joining the Army.

Later moving into prisons, he commented: “It’s the most rewarding place in the public sector to work. You can plan your holidays from one year to the next, there are no split shifts, you’re going to see daylight, and you’re teaching the prisoners to cook so you get the satisfaction of helping them and the thanks they show.”

Chair of the Public Sector Catering Alliance, Matthew White says that when he started working as a chef in a university setting he fell in love with the variety of work, the diversity of the workforce and the people he worked with. He feels, though, that this positive side of the industry does not get talked about enough.

He explained: “One of my real frustrations is that all the big hospitality organisations, and even our dear Government, always look towards hotels and fine dining as the hospitality industry. But there’s so much more and the public sector is probably the biggest part, so if you start a career in it you’ve got huge opportunities.”

Written by
David Foad