Peter Scargill on whether extra resources can impact on a perennial problem

Monday, October 21, 2019

When racing comes to selling itself as an industry in which people should want to work, its most obvious benefit could not be more clear or central to the very purpose of the sport.

"The job satisfaction – the reason people come into racing and the best thing about it – is the horses, it's right there in front of our faces," George McGrath, chief executive of the National Association of Racing Staff (Nars), pointed out.

Yet this significant enticement has consistently and emphatically proved not to be enough for racing. The sport stands on the precipice of a full-blown staffing crisis unless a multi-million-pound care package aimed at underpinning key education centres and marketing the industry as a desirable place to work can help save the day.

An extra £1 million has recently been pumped into recruitment, training and education by the Levy Board to bring the total spend to £3.1m for the current year and help tackle a problem that has left racing with a staff shortfall of 1,000 people, a turnover rate double the national average and many trainers expressing concerns for the sport's future.

The main bodies focused on, according to BHA figures, are the British Racing School, National Horseracing College (formerly the Northern Racing College) and the National Stud, with £1.6m of the Levy Board budget targeted at training racing's future workforce.

Additionally, with the now mothballed Racing Authority shadowing the Levy Board until February, funds were also pushed into specialist training, including retention activity and safeguarding education (£600,000), jockey training and development (£300,000) and extra racecourse physiotherapy (£150,000).

Levy Board operations manager Tom Byrne said: "Racing took a stronger lead in how the funding was spread and that made sense as the Racing Authority was due to take over. Our funding to the racing schools went up last year to help any potential funding difficulties created by a drop in central government funding and we've maintained that in 2019."

Despite racing's greater involvement in spending decisions, Byrne insisted allocation of funds went through a stringent process with the Levy Board and that finances were not just poured into certain areas just because requests had been made for extra cash.

The BHA is working to show there are clear pathways for racing staff

The BHA is working to show there are clear pathways for racing staff
Edward Whitaker

"It's our responsibility to ensure we are spending our money correctly and we have to be able to account for every penny that we spend," he said. "Industry recruitment, training and education is a difficult area to assess in terms of value for money. We're working with the BHA and racing schools to understand better our investments and whether we're doing the right things to meet the skill gaps we have."

Data key to BHA strategy

More money is only better if used in the correct way and by people who are working in a manner that is joined up in its thinking and approach. This is a scenario the BHA is only too aware of. British racing's governing body is working towards better data collection and analysis to help it target the right people and to understand what could be done to keep them in the sport once they have joined.

BHA executive director Will Lambe said: "The availability of appropriately skilled staff has been acknowledged as one of the biggest problems facing British racing and will be integral to any plans we have for growth in the industry. 

"There isn't necessarily consensus or, as yet, entirely accurate measures of the shortage within our workforce but that is something we are targeting. The main shortage seems to be around skilled riders but we're focusing our energies on all areas and working towards better data.

"The BHA's role is one of leadership and vision to bring people together but we’re not all-powerful in this area. We're in a position of delivering careers marketing but in this area it's down to others, who do so brilliantly, to deliver the plans we come up with together."

He added: "It can't just be at the BHA's door [to solve the problems], but we're here as a governing body acknowledging a role to play."

Working with other groups within the sport, the BHA is trying to show clear pathways for progress in racing and also attempting to engage more with young people through experiential events and a first national staffing television advert, which broadcast during the Cheltenham and Aintree festivals and resulted in a reported surge of interest.

Racing is aiming to appeal as a career to more people

Racing is aiming to appeal as a career to more people
Edward Whitaker (

This has been helped by a significant boost in the 2019 marketing budget to £200,000 – up from a paltry £40,000 four years ago – plus an awareness the sport needs to work harder to attract people who have a plethora of other jobs to explore.

"There is a perception that needs to be overcome," Lambe said. "We need to show there are clear pathways in the sport as that's something that comes back a lot – people think they might hit a wall. But we're committed to showing that’s not the case.

"There is a war for talent at the moment, but we need to work harder and be smarter with our marketing and we're not resting on any laurels. Pay has gone up 25 per cent, a 40-hour week has been in place since January and overtime has been introduced, so the conditions have improved a lot."

Racing schools at the sharp end

More than half of the training and retention budget has been spent on the BRS, National Stud and NHC, who are responsible for moulding recruits into future members of racing's workforce.

According to BRS statistics, last year 83 per cent of the foundation course students completed the training (up from 75 per cent in 2016), with 97 per cent of those going into racing yards in Britain.

The significant funding pledge thus highlights how racing feels it needs to continue to be able to target and train up new staff in order to survive.

However, with the careers market so competitive and retention rates in the sport lagging, it could be asked whether people are being suitably prepared for life as stable staff in the first place.

NHC chief executive Stephen Padgett said: "The foundation training is billed as stable staff with riding so we don't claim that they're going to be jockeys when they pass that. We try to give them realistic expectations and while we're not selective in our intake, more than 80 per cent of those who start the 12-week course graduate at the other end. 

"There is less awareness of the opportunity and what the industry has to offer than I’d like there to be. There are also perceptions, certainly among some people involved in careers services and schools and parents, that being 'just stable staff' is only hard work and menial.

"The vast majority who engage with it love the opportunity to work with animals, they love being part of a team, they realise that there is a fascinating range of things they get to do and thereafter the raft of things there are to do such as a racing secretary, becoming a jockey, travelling the world etc. 

"I wouldn't characterise [the budget increase] as throwing money at the problem. The efforts that are now being made are much more coordinated and collaborative between the entities involved. So whether it's Racing To School, Careers In Racing or whether it's the racing schools we're working more collaboratively and coherently to present a clearer and more high-profile picture of the opportunities that exist, but it's not yet doing all we’d like it to."

Reaching out into new communities and supporting students once they have graduated into racing are crucial elements that will allow the sport to attract and keep hold of future staff members.

Khadijah Mellah: groundbreaking rider is from a non-traditional racing background

Khadijah Mellah: groundbreaking rider is from a non-traditional racing background
Dan Kitwood

BRS chief executive Grant Harris has noticed a gradual erosion of what might be called the 'traditional' racing staff member, one who has been involved with and riding horses for much of their life, meaning relationships are increasingly being forged in different communities.

These include places such as the Ebony Horse Club in Brixton where Khadijah Mellah, who became the first jockey to ride with a hijab when winning the Magnolia Cup charity race at Glorious Goodwood this summer, learned to ride.

Harris said: "There is certainly a trend that fewer people get to ride or understand what a career with a horse is and it's not the easiest [sport] to participate in. We recruit and have focused our budget on going to those non-traditional areas, and the Khadijah story has obviously helped generate interest too, but we need to do more yet."

On this, Harris believes the BHA must take a stronger lead. Being clear, concise and coordinated will allow the sport's governing body to meld together the different strands and approaches being taken to the staffing crisis and focus energies in the same direction. 

He said: "The way we work at the moment is we have a stakeholder programme, which is all the people who have responsibility in this area coming together, but someone has to lead don't they? That has to be the BHA. Everyone has to agree to the plan and it has to be a BHA-led plan that we work on collaboratively. 

"There are lots of things going on but everyone needs to know about them and they have to be coordinated – you can't just have people all going off doing their own thing. That may be what's missing at the moment, that alignment."

Training and care crucial to retention

A duty of care of participants is key in ensuring racing is able to hold on to people. Surveys conducted by Nars showed 40 per cent of trainers found recruitment and retention a problem for their business (compared to 38 per cent in 2016), while only 67 per cent of apprentices entering the racing workforce remained in the sport after a year.

George McGrath (right): wants racing to take a more up-to-date approach to staff

George McGrath (right): wants racing to take a more up-to-date approach to staff
Mark Westley

McGrath urged racing to take action towards its treatment of staff, with too many sticking to an antiquated approach in terms of training and care.

"I do think society as a whole has a very high bar for what it expects from a workplace, and in that respect racing is behind the curve," he said. "We can bemoan the fact they expect and demand so much, but the reality is they do and we need to deal with that. 

"If we're serious as an industry about retaining and recruiting staff – and note it comes in that order as there's no point in recruiting them if you've not figured out how to retain them – then we have to sort this out. We do not do enough to retain people.

"This has to change from the top. I have a friend who has his FA badges and in order for him to retain his licence he has to take six hours of CPD [Continuing Professional Development] training every year, which is available online and tracks and documents your progress. His job, in a sense, is teaching kids to kick a football in a straight line.

"The BHA needs to mandate anyone who’s in a senior position in a yard to undergo training in skills and in staff management – we have an obligation to people to do this. Happy staff make happy horses and happy horses win races. We're not trying to send a man to the moon, this is just common sense. If people can't realise that then I think the BHA needs to ram it down their throats."

Human care needs to match high equine welfare standards

While funding to recruitment and retention has increased, racing continues to rely on the work of charities such as Racing Welfare to promote the sport as a career, help with training and identify reasons for people leaving.

In January, Racing Welfare was awarded a grant of £3.89m over the next three years by the Racing Foundation to assist in programmes designed to help racing's workforce.

Services such as the Racing Support Line, Careers Advice and Training Service (Cats), which received more than 3,500 individual visits to its web pages last year, occupational health and mental health services are all offered by the charity to racing staff free of charge.

While wanting to offer these programmes to staff, Simone Sear, director of welfare at Racing Welfare, believes funding needs to be better managed and directed by the BHA if racing is going to make significant gains in persuading people to stay in the sport long term.

"We have an industry where, rightly so, equine welfare is very highly prioritised but the human welfare certainly falls below that," she said. "It's not right and it should be better funded by the industry itself. 

"I think there's actually huge recognition that there’s some great initiatives for racing staff in comparison to other equine disciplines. It's the funding mechanism that's broken – I think that's an absolutely key factor. 

"We have a retention issue and have a relentless racing calendar that can’t be sustained, so it's only going to go one way unless something is done to fix it. This relentlessness for everyone in racing is such an issue."

She added: "In addition to funding to look after the human participants there needs to be strong strategic direction, compassionate leadership and a strong strategy put together by everyone to ensure the psychological and physical safety of the entire workforce."

By pressing the Levy Board for greater financial input into staffing, racing is all too aware these are problems that simply must be addressed. Failure to do so will have significant ramifications for the size, breadth and variety British racing is famous for and treasures so much.

Brexit fears are likely to lead to increased staffing problems in racing

Brexit fears are likely to lead to increased staffing problems in racing
Chris Jackson

Brexit likely to increase need for more domestic staff
The requirement for racing to recruit and retain staff domestically will potentially be brought into even sharper focus if or when the UK leaves the European Union.

A 2017 report by the BHA calculated 11 per cent of racing grooms were European Economic Area (EEA) migrants, with an additional 13 per cent from non-EEA areas, such as India and Africa.

Special status for work-riders was removed from the government's Migration Advisory Committee's Shortage Occupation List in 2011, making it harder for migrant workers to gain visas, leaving the BHA to once again lobby for such roles to be recognised as 'a highly skilled profession' to allow more flexibility.

Gary Dewhurst, a racehorse owner and CEO of Gap Personnel, a recruitment firm which places up to 12,000 workers a week in jobs across Britain, many of which are at minimum wage, believes racing is likely to face significant challenges trying to hire staff from abroad.

He said: "Plans for post-Brexit freedom of movement are fluid right now. Some sectors may be exempt, i.e. the NHS, but I'm unsure if racing will get such an exemption. 

"We have offices in Europe and potential temps are giving the UK a swerve. This is because work is available in other EU countries with no visa complications, some EU countries are offering tax incentives to retain labour and the exchange rate between the pound and the euro means working here is no longer attractive. All of this limits plans to recruit foreign staff."

Dewhurst predicts the UK's minimum wage will "dramatically increase" over the next five years, potentially increasing the cost to the racing industry, and feels the sport needs to work harder generally to retain the staff it has.

"Current EU staff working in racing could see a real wages decrease as the pound falls in value compared to the euro. Alternative jobs will be considered by many racing staff as such," Dewhurst said.

"A lot of large companies are now introducing clever, technology-led benefits for employees to aid retention. It may be something racing has to consider."