Netherlands: Björn Olthof

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Björn Olthof, Learning and Development Manager for Hilton Hotels

Jim Playfoot talks to Björn Olthof, Learning and Development Manager for Hilton Hotels in the Netherlands & Antwerp and discovers the way in which one of the most recognisable global brands ensures they find and nurture the best staff in the business

Many of us have stayed in a Hilton. The hotel chain, which employs over 150,000 staff in 83 countries worldwide, prides itself on an ability to provide a high quality luxury experience to millions of customers annually. In an increasingly competitive marketplace, a company like Hilton has to compete on every front: the hotels must be better equipped, offer better value, provide a greater range of facilities. But at the heart of the challenge is people. The 150,000 staff are the lifeblood of the business. The ability of the company to find good people, influence their professional development before they join the group and then nurture them to fulfil their potential is fundamental to their success as a business. Björn Olthof, who is responsible for learning and development in the Netherlands & Antwerp, is acutely aware of the challenges facing his employer and, specifically, of the impact education is having in terms of building an employable workforce.

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A highly evolved context

We begin by discussing the context within which Björn is working. His role takes him across Europe and, in his experience, the Netherlands & Antwerp is particularly evolved, if not unique, in terms of hospitality education. He explains:

"There are nine hospitality management schools in the Netherlands, five public and four private. There are 35 vocational hotel schools in the Netherlands. It's an abundance of education for this small country."

It quickly becomes apparent that the relationship between the hospitality industry and the education system that feeds it is dynamic and proactive. Björn explains in detail the role that a company like Hilton can and does play in working with schools and colleges. This ranges from promoting the industry to young people making decisions about what they study, to informing the curriculum that's being taught to current students. They also work hard to provide a real world link between study and employment, demonstrating how what is learnt in the classroom can translate into the workplace.

"We have to close the gap between education and the hotels. We can show how what they learn in school being implemented in the hotel environment."

Hilton representatives also sit on what Björn describes as "committees for selecting people for education programmes". This is interesting in that it shows how early the company takes an interest in the potential future workforce. There is an element of talent spotting in this process, whereby good quality students are identified early and encouraged to follow a certain path.
The other significant role that Hilton plays is in relation to the internships that form a vital part of every hospitality student's educational experience. The company offers around three hundred internships a year within the Netherlands alone, which equates to around 25 students per hotel. This is a significant investment on an annual basis and one that demonstrates the company's commitment to workforce development.

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Fighting for talent

As we talk further, the reasons for this degree of commitment become clearer. Somewhat surprisingly, given the current economic conditions and growing competition for jobs, Björn believes the battle for good people remains fierce. Indeed, Hilton engage with schools and students very early, believing that it is important to be a positive and visible stakeholder to all students entering the hospitality industry.

"We have to publicise ourselves amongst the students so we can attract the best. We're very active in the hotel schools. What can we do as a company is to create a positive image for the industry to attract good students."

Having a presence in schools in only the beginning. The company also works directly with educational institutions to secure reputation and to gain access to the best talent:

"[We focus on] building relationships with educators to ensure they send their students to Hilton hotels."

The nature of the hospitality industry is also such that the types of students entering further education have the potential to choose a number of different career pathways within the service sector (Björn mentions retail as an example of a competitor). This means that, at every level, the industry as a whole, and companies within it, have to sell themselves to convince the best talent to join them.

"We have to compete on salary, working times, working conditions. There's very strong competition for good people."
Björn also believes that, in spite of the current economic crisis and the effect this is having on jobs, the workforce demands in his sector remain acute going forward:

"A huge group of people will be retired in the next 5 - 10 years. We need to fill that gap with students currently studying - we need them to come into the hospitality industry."

I ask whether the investment that Hilton puts into education and training is not, in some ways, a risk: working patterns are changing; a job for life is no longer a reality for many; isn't there a danger that you end up educating people to go and work for someone else? His answer is both revealing and encouraging:

"I still believe that the companies who invest a lot of money in education will be the companies that people will go to. People who join companies like Hilton join because of the full package of what we offer which will include what we can offer in terms of education."

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The challenges of delivering education

As well as being a visible and positive presence in hotel schools, Hilton plays a more proactive role in designing and delivering education direct to students. This tends to focus on a small number of institutions as the investment to do this is high and it's not possible to have the same level of involvement in every school. The group has, over recent years, co-authored a qualification that is being delivered right now. Björn explains:

"We have developed a bi-lingual 3 year curriculum - a joint British and Dutch qualification - that we have been involved in from the beginning."

This qualification matches with the national occupational standards for the industry but is specifically designed, by Hilton, to develop candidates for hotel management. The group considers this to be a real success story. However, it is only one qualification delivered in one institution. Beyond that, the story becomes more fragmented. Bjorn explains how they try to influence what is taught elsewhere:

"We are always trying to close the gap between what we're doing and what the schools are doing. We may talk about specific modules we are developing and we will communicate this to the schools."

However, he admits that quality in terms of provision of education, teaching standards and so on varies greatly with some schools delivering much better outcomes than others. As far as the approach to delivering the qualifications goes, there is only so much a company like Hilton can do:

"It's always a cooperation between the hotel company and education. But it's for schools to decide how they are living up to the standards they are given by government. Quality varies a lot. The way the teaching is done should be something covered by education [the schools]. We can influence the content but it's very hard for us to give feedback on the way specific programmes are taught. You definitely see the difference in quality between students coming from different schools."

We discuss a number of other key shifts in the focus of vocational education. The move that's taking place right now in the Netherlands towards competency-based learning is broadly to be welcomed. Björn points out that "competency based working has been around for years - it's good to see education catching up with this". He also welcome a greater emphasis on blended learning - providing students with a way of learning that suits them. And we then talk about the increasing focus within vocational education on developing soft skills. This, I argue, seems particularly relevant to a service, people-based industry like hospitality. Björn agrees:

"It all starts with the motivation of the individual. It comes down to the willingness of the person to really learn. You have to start with a 'can I help you' attitude. You look for the person who can really help solve problems for the client. If they are not a service minded person, you can still train them in the attitudes and behaviours you expect but their retention of the learning is not going to be so good."
This, it seems, is a vital part of the Hilton approach to education and training. Björn expands:

"Developing the soft skills is much more important than the hard skills. Too often, hard skills are just a trick you can learn. We'd rather spend time on having the right attitude and the right motivation than showing them how to press a button."

We finish by returning to a regularly discussed theme, that of the impact of the economic crisis on education and training provision. I ask whether financial pressures allied to the increasing mobility within the job market make it difficult to see a future where Hilton continues to invest in the way that it does currently. Björn thinks not:

"Companies should invest in helping education see how the theory works in practice. If companies do this, then they can expect to have influence over what is taught. During the last two years lots of companies kicked out the trainees and stopped internships. Within Hilton, we didn't lose one trainee or intern. Now we are starting to get the rewards from that. Education has to be a long term investment."

It's a refreshingly forward-thinking view and one that perhaps reveals why Hilton remain a strong, vibrant force within the hospitality industry.

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