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Taking CARE of business

SERENDIPTIOUS is how Patrick Ryan describes the sequence of events that saw Carol Nolan tell her interviewers at Horse Racing Ireland that the absence of training, education and support structures from the organisation’s activities was a glaring omission given its remit.




Nolan had come from a retail background with the Jefferson Smurfit group and Boots but was looking for something that wasn’t centred entirely on a company growing its profits. As a resident of Kilcullen, who had been reared on a diet of racing, the role as group human resources manager at HRI looked ideal.


During her preparation, it became clear that HRI was not running any schemes to train, educate, develop and support people within the industry, or to make the industry a viable employment option for those not within the circle. When invited during an interview to identify areas within HRI and the wider industry that she could develop, Nolan made a presentation on education and training and found herself pushing an open door.


“Looking at it from the outside, bar RACE, I couldn’t see where the provision for industry education and training, and support and welfare was” says Nolan now. “I couldn’t find anything in it and couldn’t see any big initiatives launched.


“At the same time, it was something (chief executive) Brian Kavanagh and a number of others in the team were trying to get a handle on as to how they could do more so it dovetailed very nicely.”


Nolan started in November but with industry training and development a critical element of her position, her title evolved to director of people and industry education. She established the Careers and Racing Education department the following April.


Ryan, son of well-known Curragh saddler PJ, was appointed industry and education training officer, responsible for the day-to-day running of CARE. He has been around racing all his life, with his first job coming as a gardener in the Irish National Stud. He worked part-time in Tote Ireland while in college and that led to him joining HRI. He has been with the semi-state body for a decade, having moved through the finance, racing and procurement departments before taking up his current post.


The duo have had many meetings with the various stakeholders, as well as the likes of the GAA and Gaelic Players’ Association, IRFU and Irish Ruby Union Players’ Union, Basketball Ireland, Irish Hockey Association and Swim Ireland to find out how they had addressed similar programmes – what worked and what didn’t, particularly in getting initiatives off the ground.


The same conversations were held with their counterparts in the BHA, the British Racing School and even Racing Victoria. Then it was time to draw up a plan and get cracking.


“Essentially what we’re trying to do is provide a framework or support structures for any of the various different populations we’re working with; a place for education and training and having it as important as other components of HRI” says Nolan. “For me, it’s about really making sure it’s given the same importance over time as some of our core activities. That’s a work-in-progress but I do have the support of Brian and have had since I’ve come into the role.


“Corny as it sounds, this is about creating a legacy and making sure that at a point in the future in which our funding model changes, that nobody is making an assumption that education and training can go. It’s embedded and part of what we do.”


Personal welfare was the major emphasis of the initial year because there were insufficient support mechanisms within the industry. The Industry Assistance Programme provides the foundation for everything else because advancement and bettering yourself is only a goal if you are well, physically and mentally.


The programme has been wrongly criticised as for jockeys only. It was launched during the Galway Festival, at a time when the mental health issue had been brought to the fore by riders such as Mark Enright, Kieren Fallon and Graham Lee but the it is for the entire industry. And while crisis management is a vital element of the programme, it does have a wider-ranging role.


“We are trying to put a support service there for 14 and a half thousand people within the industry” says Ryan. “The feedback has been good but you’d feel that it’s possibly not being used enough by stable staff. We have to get the awareness out there.


“And it’s not just about crisis management. It is an information service for anything you want. It is designed to reduce stress, ease the load on you so that you can concentrate on what’s important. So even if you’re going abroad for the weekend and you want to look at hotels, they’ll do that work for you and come back with a list. If you’re looking for a child minder, they’ll do that for you. So we need to get that word out there and increase that this year.”


Once that was done, it was time to try open racing up to people who feel that it is a closed shop with no opportunities.


“Demystify it” as Ryan describes it. “I saw the website (workinracing.ie) as a big platform for us in that way. Have a look around in your own time, with no pressure and look in at all the different bits and pieces. It sets out the different courses, the different roles of racing, has video content that might engage people and open up areas that they might not be familiar, such as the behind-the-scenes look at things the stall-handlers. We have also shared content with the BHA like their brilliant Jockey Matters series and if we get feedback about other issues, will do something on them ourselves. We will build on all of that in the future.”


An education grant was made available to jockeys last year and that will be extended to stud and stable staff for 2017. Only one jockey took up the grant in 2016 but with increased awareness and availability, that should increase over the coming year.


“Something that’s quite different about our industry is that we introduce people to the dream of racing very young” Nolan notes. “You look at some of the RACE guys, coming in at 15 and 16. In any other professional sport, the guys and girls coming in at that age, their education is very much on a par with their sport requirements as well. We’re trying to capture people already in the industry and the sport, who have put their education to one side.”


The link with Griffith College is especially helpful in this regard, offering a foundation course that is a gradual reintroduction to education and personal development.


“It’s about empowering people to upskill, to consider their personal development” declares Ryan. “It’s lifelong learning. That’s the approach.”


An equine information day for Leaving Cert cycle students was held in Naas with a farrier demonstration alongside talks given by trainer Willie McCreery and jockey Kate Harrington. That will be expanded in the next 12 months in a bid to get the word out there about the many employment opportunities available in racing.


It all adds up but they’re only getting started.


 

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HRI director of people and industry education, Carol Nolan promises that lessons have been learned following the high profile controversy surrounding Brian Kavanagh's reappointment as chief executive and hails Kavanagh's support in addressing the previous ommission of training, education and welfare programmes. Nolan also puts tracks on notice that they have to do better in terms of providing a return for HRI's investment into their improved facilities, as racing cannot rely on government funding forever to sustain itself


THE controversy surrounding Brian Kavanagh’s reappointment as HRI chief executive for an unprecedented third term brought severe criticism from all corners. As head of HR, Nolan agrees that it was a difficult period.


“That period of time wasn’t easy for anybody and certainly when there were such highlights in the racing and breeding industry, it felt at times that that was getting a little bit lost because of a chief executive contract. From HRI’s perspective, you’d never want that to be the case. You’d want it to be about how successful we are in the racing world and how much the sales are growing. So it had an impact but it’s about us building now. We have an ambitious strategic plan.


“The focus is always on the industry and that is the case with Brian – what can he do for the industry? In that period of time, when that wasn’t the focus, it didn’t make any of us feel like we were doing a good day job.”


It isn’t an issue that we can delve too deeply into, given that CARE is what we have convened to discuss but Nolan is adamant that lessons have been taken on board.


“Absolutely, and it would be very wrong of me sitting on a senior executive team of a semi-state body of this nature than to say anything other than we have to learn from what happened. We have to be able to work in a better way with the board, and have a greater level of transparency around how we do things. We also need to be less afraid of saying that the people we have in the roles are the right people to do the jobs.


“But certainly it would be very wrong to say that we don’t have huge lessons to learn from it. And we have put in place the structures and changes we need to be make sure a situation like that doesn’t reoccur. Part of that is the new board, which has a couple of new board members. You wouldn’t have wanted to have to go through it but certainly I think we’ll be stronger on the back of it and we have to focus now on getting on and delivering.”


While it was gratifying that the government increased its funding of Irish racing, there is a clear desire to establish a model of self-sustenance rather than continuing to rely on handouts from the Exchequer. And to that extent, Nolan delivers a clear message to racecourse managers.


“(Over) the next three years for us, as the dynamic changes externally and hopefully as we get greater numbers of people attending race meetings, and greater number of people coming back into ownership and training, we have to have an ambition that the commercial side of our business starts to perform much better and that’s through the racetracks.


“For the amount of money we’re spending on capital development programmes to make tracks better places for customers to come, the offshoot of that is that your businesses have to become better for the return on that investment to come. So absolutely it’s about growing commercial revenue and maybe approaching the business model on the racecourse side of things, and in particular the Tote, differently.


“We’re a 30% shareholder in the Curragh. There’s a significant amount of money being put into that project but it’s not to have the same number of people attending the Derby when the track is complete. It’s for a much bigger organisation, and for some of the other tracks to have a different focus as well. We can’t be shy about saying that.”


 

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Patrick Ryan has spent a lifetime in the industry, and after a decade with HRI, proved the ideal appointment as industry education & training co-ordinator


APART from developing the programmes in some of the areas already mentioned, CARE has a number of other plans for 2017. A development of the Jockey Pathway that was established initially by Giles Warrington and has been taken developed by Turf Club doctor Adrian McGoldrick, Turf Club exercise physiologist SarahJane Cullen and RACE, is a key item on the agenda. It is based on athlete development models used in other sports but which for some reason, had not been utilised by jockeys until recent years. The benefits are obvious.


“We got feedback from trainers and jockeys and that’s a process that’s still in motion” explains Ryan. “We hope to start introducing some of the professional services this year, such as making a strength and conditioning coach, nutritionist and financial advisor available to jockeys.


“You’d hope to start with the apprentices and conditionals, get them into the habit of thinking of themselves as athletes. Eat right, do the correct things to keep the weight down rather than wasting or even flipping, if some of them are. Just to get them into the right habits early on. It is quite a slow process because it does involve change and people are naturally resistant and we have a lot of groups to consult but I think we’re making progress on it.”


With jockey coaches being viewed in such positive terms, CARE is in the process of establishing a jockey coaching standard with Sport Ireland. Warren O’Connor and Gordon Power earned their qualifications in Britain but the feedback Nolan and Ryan received was that there was an appetite for a course to be set up here.


Meanwhile, efforts to address the serious staff shortages afflicting trainers will be stepped up. In 2016, CARE trialled an intensive nine-week programme in RACE that brought 12 people with no experience, or a limited amount, right up to speed in terms of riding out and working with racehorses.


“It was one example of getting a direct lead” states Nolan. “We acted on it quite quickly and we got it in place and with limited success really. So this year, we’ll be running it again but running it slightly differently. So those people will be exposed to the trainers they’ll be working with much earlier in the programme, they’ll be working on a Saturday in a trainer’s yard where they weren’t last year. We have to do something to make sure people are ready.”


There are many reasons why trainers are struggling to attract Irish staff but Nolan points to the fact that Ireland has the largest number of people per capita in Europe going on to third level education, regardless of their ability to complete the course of choice, or suitability to it.


Throw in the long hours, weekend work, lack of structured time off, sometimes unattractive wages and the very limited opportunity for advancement, and trainers are struggling. Some of the winners of the Godolphin Stud and Stable Staff Awards did reveal that the more progressive employers are doing their best however.


“They will tell you that in the yards they work in, while there mightn’t be a progression, the trainer has made them the main person, responsible maybe for the development of some of the team, or for the scheduling” Nolan reveals. “The really good trainers are recognising that when they have really good people working for them, to give them responsibility, to delegate more. So it’s progression of a different kind. It’s recognition for what they’re doing.


“The racing industry is quite conservative and it’s about us thinking differently about how we work with the people employed. Because if we don’t work differently with them, they won’t stay. There’s no use saying ‘This is the way it’s always been’ because that’s not gonna cut it in 20 years. And it isn’t cutting it at the moment.”


Because of her professional experience and position within the industry, Nolan was asked by the Irish Stable Staff Association and Irish Racehorse Trainers Association to act as intermediary in negotiations surrounding the increase of a minimum wage and other conditions for stable staff and was delighted that an agreement was secured.


“The agreement marks the first stage only in giving a greater focus on welfare and employment issues in the Industry of which I am very keen to get more involved with in 2017. It's a massive priority for me and HRI to address and support any opportunities to improve and develop employment standards on our industry. I will be working with all employers in the industry be it trainers, breeders, racecourse etc to prioritise this throughout this year.”


CARE is looking too at providing continuing professional development options to ground staff. With so many young boys and girls finding their dreams of becoming a jockey dashed before they leave their teens, this is a line of work being viewed as a viable alternative within the industry. With the age demographic very high among groundsmen and women at the big training yards, studs and tracks, it is also an area that will need fresh blood soon and urgently. To that end, an apprentice model is being developed to address this.


Throughout all this, increasing the awareness is essential.


“We were coming from a place where there was RACE, but there was no activity in HRI” Nolan emphasises. “No budget, no priority. So there is the capacity to fundamentally change the industry by some of the initiatives we can do. So this is a permanent fixture and it will grow and develop over time. But it will require changes and people to come with us.”


 

Follow CARE on workinracing.ie, on Twitter (@workinracing) or Facebook (Careers and Racing Education)

24 hour Industry Assistance Programme Helpline: freephone 1800 303 588 or SMS for call back 00353 (0)86 838 3998



A version of this article appeared in The Irish Field on January 28, 2017

 

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