We must train the next generation of hospitality professionals

25 March 2010
We must train the next generation of hospitality professionals

The major preoccupation of every manager in the industry isn't marketing, rising costs, or even obtaining finance (though that's bad enough). It's staff and skill shortages. Travelling the country, it is clear that the shortage of motivated, skilled staff, even at a time of high unemployment, remains the key concern.

What's new, you might ask? Has nothing changed in the past 60 years? Then, however, the industry was much smaller. There were fewer hotels, far fewer restaurants, no motorway service areas and contract catering hardly existed.

We now employ almost 700,000 people in our kitchens, 700,000 in our restaurants and bars, and more than 200,000 in our hotels - a huge workforce spread throughout the country. Of this number, it's estimated that some 40-50% are non-British labour. According to People 1st, over half of hospitality businesses lack chef skills and nearly 60% of businesses say that their staff lack customer training.

Such findings beg the obvious question: why don't businesses train their staff to ensure that they do have the required skills?

When People 1st suggest that the industry needs to recruit about one million people between now and 2017 to take into account its expansion, such a lack of skills will become an even more daunting problem if nothing is done about it.

So this is why, even at a time of high UK unemployment, the industry is having to rely so heavily on migrant labour. If we cannot attract young, new entrants, eager to make a career in one of the country's most successful industries, then we have to import labour, however untrained.

There are chinks of light. For example, the number of talented British chefs opening new restaurants, and running Michelin-starred establishments, is heartening. If they can help encourage other British-born youngsters into the industry, we can be sure that their numbers will increase and standards will rise.

But confusion reigns in both the training and qualifications available, and in the organisations involved. We have People 1st, City and Guilds, the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency and several other awarding bodies; we have UKSP and Springboard to provide careers advice; at another level we have government departments, Quangos, tourist boards and the Sector Skills Council all with a stated claim to have an interest in developing training. The industry also has its own Hospitality Skills Academy to raise standards.

At yet another level, we have associations such as the BHA, the IoH, the Academy of Culinary Arts, the Academy of Food and Wine, Craft Guild of Chefs - and many others - all concerned about the shortage of trained people and keen to have an input into the development of the industry's training programmes and qualifications.

Unfortunately, all this interest has yielded little. The history of training in the hospitality industry is riddled with initiatives which have changed at the whim of government or administrators.

Apprenticeships, which were in favour in the 1960s and 1970s, are now back. Why were they ever scrapped? College training courses and City and Guilds craft qualifications, which were easily understood by industry, were ditched in favour of NVQs, which have now been overtaken by the more recently introduced Professional Cookery diplomas.

At the same time, choice is so extensive in higher education that it's difficult to count the number of different higher-level degree courses available. Each combines so many different elements of hospitality, tourism, sports and leisure that employers are totally nonplussed.

Being unable to understand what is on offer and what they should be doing to help train their employees, employers probably take the easy option and leave the training to others.

The industry misses the simplicity of the old but well-understood City and Guilds 706 series of craft qualifications. We can only hope the new Professional Cookery Diplomas become as popular and well understood.

The hospitality industry is hugely diverse. It's largely made up of over 200,000 individual owner-operators, each with limited resources of time and money. What they all need is encouragement to train. Not only will this benefit their business but, if they succeed, they will most likely reduce the high level of labour turnover that bedevils the industry.

But ominously, cutbacks in public spending by Government will surely affect the provision of expensive-to-run catering courses in the future, meaning employers will be expected to pick up an even greater proportion of the training bill. Though on past performance this does not augur well.

In order for businesses to even consider picking up the mantle, there needs to be more clarification and less confusion. We need a national forum to bring all the interested parties together and collectively agree the way ahead may be the first step.

But even before that, 200,000 hospitality businesses need to commit to the concept of training and skills development. In such a fragmented industry, with such a poor history of training, that's an immensely tall order.

But if we don't meet it, we'll still be complaining about our skills shortages in 60 years' time.

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