Partners turn star performers. Waitrose has pulled the supermarket career image out of the doldrums. Thanks to its specialist training programmes, jobs now involve not just real expertise but also theatre, personality and panache, as Mary Carmichael discovers Fans of TV's Only Fools and Horses might remember an episode in which Del-Boy, offended by the sullen demeanour of the gum chewing, teenage checkout girl, asks her if she's sued the charm school. The question reflected the widely held view of the time ­ that supermarkets were a career cul-de-sac, only for the untrained and interactively challenged. Since then, however, the food retail industry has done much to improve its image as an employer. Waitrose launched its specialist training scheme for key fresh product areas in 1993. Meat was the pioneer but the scheme has been refined, gradually expanded and now covers cheese, fish, wine, horticulture and fruit and vegetables. Hot food, delicatessen and patisserie will join the roll later this year. Personnel director Tony Solomons says there were three main reasons behind the development of the scheme. "First, to ensure that we're equipped to advise our customers ­ especially as the range of fresh produce becomes more cosmopolitan. Second, to preserve traditional skills, such as butchery and fishmongery. Third, to offer a career path to partners who don't want to go into management." The scheme involves a heavy and ongoing investment from Waitrose. There are 450 specialists at present, with another 250 to 300 in training. Waitrose is nearing its target of one qualified specialist in each key area in every branch. Next year's target is two per area. "We want to ensure that expertise is available as often as possible," says Solomons. Specialists require an outgoing personality, a passion for their subject and commitment. Their programmes take between six months and two years to complete, depending on their attitude and learning speed, the time they have available and the product area. While all staff in fresh produce are trained in the basic knowledge and skills of presentation, display and hygiene, specialists' training covers other areas. They learn about the origins of products, preparation and cooking (where appropriate), and how to advise customers on choosing the right product for the right occasion. Training also covers organics. Staff are assessed both instore and by external organisations relevant to the speciality ­ the Wines and Spirit Education Trust and the UK Cheese Guild to name two. This can lead to recognised qualifications. The course content varies. The wine course starts with an introduction from a wine buyer, tastings and a vineyard visit. Private and instore study with an individual work book follows. This features instore awareness ­ ideally with customers ­ more tastings and two annual conferences on the latest developments. Trainees study the Waitrose range, price structure, wine categories, seasonality, Christmas or summer lines and, most importantly from the customers' point of view, what goes best with what. Meat carving or fish filleting bring in an element of theatre and personality. Training here involves advice on cooking times and different cuts. In fruit and vegetables, exotic produce is the key, particularly recognising when fruit is ripe and knowing how to cook it. Specialists are trained in how to pass on their expertise to other partners. Store managers need to provide opportunities for them to hold tastings, show off their skills and pass on their knowledge. "That kind of support is essential," says Solomons. "It shows specialists they're valued. They represent Waitrose and they've got to feel good about themselves to do that well." Solomons admits there were teething problems in explaining the scheme's aim and its long-term status, as well as in selecting the right people. There was also overlap between areas at first, with different people organising similar aspects of different schemes. But he says the approach has been refined and streamlined. The scheme seems to have been well received by partners. "They like the fact that we're investing in them and they work at it," Solomons says. "It really increases their confidence in their knowledge, their ability to advise customers and their interaction with colleagues." As for offering a career path away from management, the confidence boost has sometimes had the opposite effect, inspiring some to take on greater responsibility and to move into management positions. Waitrose advertises its specialists' services with badges and PoS material and is proud of the point of difference this initiative gives the chain. "The scheme truly embodies the Partnership ethos," says Solomons. "It produces capable, confident partners who enjoy what they do and can communicate that to the customers." {{Z SUPPLEMENTS }}