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Case study

Case study: Nicholas & Harris


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The employer

Nicholas & Harris started out in 1840 as a family-run bakery. It now employs 350 people, 280 in manufacturing related roles and 70 office-based support staff. They produce affordable breads and artisan bakery products for major customers such as Waitrose, Sainsbury and the Co-op.

The company is a member of the Finsbury Food Group, a group of specialist bakeries across the UK and Europe, but still keeps its original family ethos. 

Nicholas Harris Logo

Jill Nieuwoudt is HR Business Partner. Here she talks to Alison Sumpter, of DfE about how industry placements are set to become part of the company’s workforce strategy despite the effects of COVID, and why the investment is worthwhile

Setting the scene

Alison: Just set the scene for us to start with, Jill. How do you see the workforce developing at Nicholas & Harris, and what role is there for industry placements in your strategy?

Jill: Because of COVID organisations are going to be very nervous about how they structure for the future and what that looks like. There’s bound to be some sensitivity about the changes that businesses are currently experiencing. Even when people talk about the ‘new norm’, they’re often not quite sure what it is. Industry placements may help to introduce fresh talent for future emerging opportunities.

COVID recovery

But there are real green shoots out there. There’s an opportunity for us to press a reset button as an organisation. Dealing with COVID has shone a spotlight on areas that we always knew we needed to do something about, and perhaps it’s forced our hand a little bit as well. That’s why I think it’s a great opportunity for industry placements. Rather than being fearful that people aren’t up for it we see placements as an investment for the future in young people who are already investing in themselves.

Alison: You’re definitely not using COVID as a reason to say, ‘Let’s just not bother’ with placements, are you? In fact, you sound quite buoyant about the opportunity.

Time to invest

Jill: As a group we’re very forward thinking. Although COVID is still out there, for us it’s the ‘new business as usual’ right now – we’ve all embraced that.

One of the really important things that COVID has helped us realise is how important it is to invest in our teams. During the last nine months we’ve benefited so much from teams of people that are loyal to our organisation and we realise more than ever how important it is to upskill people and retain that talent.

We’re also going to invest in future-proofing the business with more diverse talent. That includes tapping into the education sector, especially where it’s the young people who are investing in themselves. Why would we not want to support that?

Alison: Who else in the organisation sees it like this?

Jill: We take a strategic approach at group level because we want to get a cohesive approach across all sites. We’re looking at how to develop our business, so we know where the investment has to be placed. The only way to grow the business is to make sure that the talent coming in wants to stay. Once the economy starts to recover, we want to show that we’re investing in industry placements to bring different talent into our organisation.

The specific proposition for industry placements would go through HR leads and the learning and development teams. We all know we should be looking closer to home for our talent, and they can really see the benefit of doing it through placements. After that the commitment has to come from the leadership teams on site.

Bringing students in

Alison: Once you’ve got that commitment, how do you plan to bring students into the organisation, so they feel comfortable on site?

Jill:  We’ve always grown our capability as a business around our induction and our on-boarding. It would be important that anyone coming in on an industry placement has that as well. They would need a thorough understanding of what we’re about as a business and the sector. That would be our accountability, to make sure we cover it off.

Alison: It sounds as if you’d like to see industry placement students being treated almost as a new recruit?

Jill: Absolutely, yes. If their placement ended up with them coming to work with us, we’d want them to see their placement as an investment by us in their future.

Alison: Are there any other challenges in your particular workplace that might get in the way of industry placements being a success?

Jill: For me it’s all about planning. We need to make sure the timing is right for the provider and everyone else involved. We have to react to peak season so I wouldn’t be looking at bringing students in when people couldn’t invest some time in them. As long as that’s in place it wouldn’t cause us a problem.

Alison: Who would be most likely to support the students’ journey alongside the line manager?

Jill: We’ve got a mentoring programme on site and cross-functionally across the group as well. It’s a formal process which we very much encourage as part of our talent mapping. Students would fall within that and get that support.

Why now?

Alison: So to sum things up Jill, what makes industry placements especially interesting to you at the moment?

Jill: It’s mainly the fact that students are contributing. They’re coming in not just as another pair of hands but as someone who can add value. I know they only spend 20% of their time on our site but it’s specific to a project or an area we’re looking to develop.

Take engineering for example. The demographic of engineering generally has got a lot older so from that perspective it’s really important to get younger, newly qualified people in the sector who want to gain a career in engineering. I could see someone coming in and doing a 45-day placement focusing on electronics for example. But there are so many different aspects to the engineering side of things depending on what the students is most interested in.

Alison: What other kind of industry placements could you see in Nicholas & Harris?

Jill: It could definitely be someone on a digital programme. We’re doing a project with one of our main customers which takes them from an online presence of around 40% to 60% in the next 5 years.

We need to retain our share of that growing market and to do that we have to have people in our organisation who are exposed to new trends. So we’d see it very much as us investing in their knowledge by setting up an industry placement around a project like this.


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