21st January 2019
I wasn’t sure what had prompted the Racing Post to focus on racing’s staff shortage for a few days earlier in the month, or what had suddenly caused Nicky Henderson and Dan Skelton to come out with their prophecies of doom and gloom. I thought maybe it was just a slow news day but now, having looked back in more detail at the coverage, I realise that it was in response to a survey conducted by the BHA and ITV which concluded that racing needs 1,000 new staff.
A few days later, trainer Evan Williams hit back with what I believe was a much more considered and balanced view. For a start he pointed out that it is not a problem unique to racing and all rural industries have difficulties with recruitment and retention despite mechanisation having greatly reduced the number of staff required on farms. We find it almost as difficult to recruit suitable staff for the ‘estate’ (gallop and paddock maintenance, haylage production, etc.) side of our business as we do riders and, of course, in that department there is no requirement to be considerably smaller and lighter than the average Brit. And then Stuart Williams – as ever an independent thinker and no relation to Evan, as far as I am aware – explained the set of circumstances that has brought the situation to a head. The vast increase in the number of horses in training in Britain and the amount of racing has coincided with a reduction in immigrant workers from Ireland and, more recently, Asia and South America. And I would add that the growth of racing in Australia and Dubai has drawn some of our home grown staff to spend, at least, part of their year abroad. British staff seem to have no difficulty in obtaining work in Australia – presumably with a valid visa or work permit – but we cannot get work permits to enable Australian riders to come here.
Most other trainers seemed to use the results of this survey as an excuse to call for more prize-money but that does nothing but encourage the media to portray work in racing as underpaid. Certainly we need more prize-money but that is principally because we need more owners. The gulf between cost and return for owners never narrows and it is increasing difficult to sell the idea of ownership to anyone other than the mega-rich. And, as Stuart Williams pointed out, it is not a lack of money that demotivates our workforce, it is a lack of free time.
I have long recognised the negative impact on recruitment and retention of the traditional 13 working day fortnight (a ‘weekend’ off meaning Saturday afternoon and Sunday) but, with the unavoidable requirement to care for our animals 24/7 and an ever increasing emphasis on Saturday and evening fixtures, it has been one area of traditional working practice that I haven’t changed. I always knew that, like others in the service and leisure industries, we have to work weekends and at times when most people are free to enjoy racing but I could see that there are no end of industries that have to operate over far longer hours than us and they do it by use of an appropriate shift system. But it is a ‘chicken and egg’ dilema – to reduce hours and provide more time off we need more people, and to get more people we need to offer reduced hours and more time off. Unless, of course, you are willing to see the horses ridden for less time. I have never been willing to accept that as an option.
In the end we have had to take the plunge and, from 4th February, all our riding and yard staff will have a reduction of 5% to their hours with no reduction in wages and they will now get, at least, one full day off in every calendar week. We hope it will attract more people into, and back into, racing. It isn’t quite a 9 – 5, Monday to Friday, job but who would want it to be?
So, if you want to work in what we at Johnston Racing would like to think is still, after more than 30 years, the most progressive and forward-thinking team in racing, see www.johnston.racing/jobs