With the lack of trained staff the current bane of the industry, operators are thinking smarter about recruiting their workforce. The Caterer's latest roundtable event, which was held in partnership with HR software company Ceridian, looked at the best ways to tackle hospitality's worsening skills crisis. Rosalind Mullen reports
Most operators are struggling to fill their vacancies. Are there any success stories?
Sally Beck (SB): We have a success story from working with educators. Royal Lancaster London is a 411-bedroom hotel with a big events space, and we're currently staffed for 40% occupancy but can take 60% at a squeeze. We recently had 83% – the hotel was the headquarters for the Uefa Cup in the summer, so we went up from 20% occupancy for three weeks and then back again. I did a deal with local colleges and got 56 students to come in. I paid them £10 an hour and our sister hotel K West gave them free accommodation.
Those students haven't had work experience for over a year, so I'm working with their colleges to offer a few weeks' experience on a rota. If I get a bank of them, it will help. I've given them each six starter roles, such as room attendant, F&B attendant, luggage porter, receptionist, and they'll get 40 hours a week at £10 an hour. They're paying £50 a week for accommodation, so my full-time staff feel it is fair.
Kerry Crompton-Harris (KCH): We're a big employer, with about 38,000 staff in the UK across most sectors, but we have a challenge as there are 2,500 vacancies. We've had success by educating our hiring managers on why there's a skills shortage across the industry to explain that it isn't just our company. Our key message is the need for speed. So when a CV lands on your desk, don't wait for a pile of them and then sift through. Instead, contact the applicant the same day, because we're finding candidates are applying for tens of jobs at the same time and the company that is first off the starting line clinches the deal.
Martin MacPhail (MM): We manage about 50 hotels across the UK. The busy summer has showcased the resilience of our teams in terms of their work ethic and the fact they've stuck around. We've also had some success with Kickstart. They are not readymade employees, so the employer needs to put the time in. There will be drop-outs, but some are showing the passion and personality to want to succeed.
Andy Grant (AG): It's about adapting to this difficult climate. Applicants may not be ticking every box on your skills and responsibilities list, so you need to accept you may not get everything you want.
It sounds as if experience is not so important in the current climate and that what you are looking for is enthusiasm. Is that accurate?
KCH: Yes, we've gone back to ‘hire the smile, train for the skills'. In the past, we've said the words but not always lived by them. Now, we go for the person who will give the best customer service and spend time training them.
People are being offered a job on the phone now without being seen. It's about educating our recruiters to look past the CV and to pick up the phone to try to bring out their personality. We can teach the rest. Ceri Gott (CG): We have 650 people across eight sites in the UK and it's important to remember that most have not had much training over the past 18 months, so don't throw them in at the deep end – give them support and training.
Is the negative work culture perpetuated by some employers putting young people off?
SB: I recently spoke to a contact at a London college and she is so depressed. Three of her third year students are back from finishing their apprenticeships but say they are dumping the industry because of the working conditions. Those employers are using and abusing our staff and making them work long hours to the extent they are turning them off. We are damaging our own pipeline of talent and adding to our bad reputation among parents that we are an industry their children shouldn't be in.
Rohaise Rose-Bristow (RRB): Applicant numbers are down on hospitality courses, too. I chair Apprenticeship in Hospitality Scotland and we have offered 49 apprenticeships placements, but only filled 22.
AG: We need to highlight and showcase the benefits of a career in hospitality. There are so many positives, but they are undersold.
SB: Massively undersold. Someone needs to do a documentary on the positives of hospitality. I've seen the trailer for Boiling Point [a soon to be released film about a chef starring Stephen Graham] – it's an absolute shocker. It looks like a documentary but it uses actors to show chefs abusing other chefs and waiting staff. We have positive stuff to talk about, but we don't have a vehicle to get it out there.
Where are you looking for applicants? Are you being more proactive?
RRB: We have a recruitment video to show the lifestyle that you might have here because the usual channels aren't getting applicants in.
AG: We're revisiting the campaigns from earlier days – putting up posters and leafleting job centres and getting more creative.
KCH: We've done similar, going back to putting up posters in shop windows to attract locals. If you're an outsource contractor you're less likely to be known, so we've relaunched to be more high-street facing to sell the benefits of our world to people who haven't considered contract catering before – people who've worked at, say, McDonald's and Wagamama.
Also, with more technology coming into the hiring space, we've invested in a chatbot so people can apply simply through conversation, and we're doing a lot more around social media.
SB: We've had good results with ‘recommend a friend'. If the friend stays for three months, the team member gets £350, and so on – so they choose their friend carefully. They have to fit in with our culture of ‘no blame, no shouty stuff'.
At the moment, recruitment agencies don't have the staff. But I believe if you treat your people well, when you go back to the agencies you'll get the people you want. We've put pay up, but it's not all about pay.
MM: There are a number of passive jobseekers around who are registering with jobs boards and agencies to see what's out there and what salaries they can get. So we're doing a lot of proactive targeting at senior levels.
Neil McAllister (NM): When I worked in recruitment, if I saw a company going into administration I'd suggest other companies in the sector should contact them to recruit staff. Unfortunately, people are going out of business in this industry, so keep an eye on the business pages and contact their HR department. They want to help their staff find new jobs.
KCH: We have partnerships with The Clink, which is a good feeder of highly trained staff. We also work with Springboard and have had success with care-leavers. There are many charities out there trying to get people back into work – refugee and homeless charities.
CG: We've contributed to the Hospitality Rising campaign, a collaborative movement to create the biggest hospitality recruitment advertising campaign ever. It's looking to raise £5m to run a recruitment campaign similar to the one run by the Army. This is important because we're competing with other industries.
It is also crucial to make sure existing staff have good experience at work. How important are development opportunities?
AG: We're seeing more employees wanting to take up development opportunities. Coming out of the pandemic, people want to reinvent themselves and develop their management and coaching skills.
KCH: We've seen uptake in internal apprenticeship schemes and career pathways, too. The view could be that they are worried they won't get furlough if there's another lockdown and they've just changed employers, so employees who have stayed with us are looking to enhance their skills within the company.
NM: I can back that up. In the past, if I was working with a hotel group, succession planning was so far down the list it was never discussed. But since June it has been one of the top five priorities at every meeting.
Applicants may not be ticking every box on your skills and responsibilities list, so you need to accept you may not get everything you want
How far out can you realistically schedule rotas?
Alastair Logan (AL): I'm interested in this, because one metric we look at is how far ahead you schedule and how much churn there is based on that. From a quality-of-life perspective, knowing when you're working makes a huge difference.
CG: Four weeks is ideal, but two weeks is realistic. There's Covid, and as winter comes we will be thinking about flu and colds, so it will get harder.
AG: If there is flexibility, team members will be more accommodating to a manager's request than if it is a dictatorial culture.
RRB: To adapt to pressures, we've restricted the fine-dining restaurant to residents-only for two days a week. It's not something we wanted to do, but it takes the strain off the staff. When they see we're not asking them to work harder but to work more productively, they want to work with you.
NM: You are also ensuring standards stay high.
KCH: In contract catering, we can guarantee rotas Monday to Friday and 9am-2pm, but we are still struggling to fill vacancies. So while rostering can be a turn-off, there's something bigger than that causing a lack of supply.
How do you keep in touch with staff?
RRB: We use Workplace from Facebook.
AG: You need to make it personal. We have a partnership with Mental Health First Aid England and are trying to get people trained so we can support those who are anxious about work.
KCH: Our communications had become more electronic with online inductions and e-learning, but during the pandemic we went back to the human touch and were ringing people and checking in with ‘do you need help?' and ‘have you got food?' We got positive feedback. They appreciated that we were being human.
SG: Everyone coming back to work here did a reinduction. We asked how they had been and there were three groups: those who'd never been on furlough were resentful of those who'd been making sourdough. Those on furlough had lost confidence and were resentful of those who had worked. The happiest were those on flexi-furlough because they'd had the best of both worlds. We need to know what we all went through across our teams if we want to retain and build loyalty.
AG: It is then continuing that communication through coffee chats and team meetings to keep those channels open.
How can you increase the human touch?
RRB: We've stepped up face-to-face interviews. I was chatting to a new chef and he said it was the first time in 30 years anyone had asked him how he was getting on at work. Scary.
MM: We need to overcommunicate. We've introduced a communications app because we couldn't reach all 1,500 people in the business, but with the app we can share benefits and mental health and financial wellbeing, and got good feedback because they feel listened to and communicated with on an informal basis.
We've stepped up face-to-face interviews. I was chatting to a new chef and he said it was the first time in 30 years anyone had asked him how he was getting on at work. Scary
CG: Be clear about what support is available. People have experienced real insecurity in hospitality, and those joining now seem more distrustful, so give clarity. It comes back to treating people like individuals. Our chefs, for instance, stay on average seven years, and I think it's because we've given all of them individual support at some point – either because parents have died or a partner went into hospital.
NM: If you put those initiatives in, you are building a core of engaged, focused people who are vocally positive about being in your hospitality business, and that will pay dividends when new starters join and hear their stories.
RRB: We've added private healthcare for senior managers, plus everybody can apply for a personal development grant of £250 for anything from skydiving to driving lessons.
NM: We saw a massive spike in retention when we introduced on-demand pay in the US, with uptake of around – 35%-40% in hospitality, manufacturing and retail. On-demand payment was also attractive to candidates during the interview process. But choose the vendor carefully, as costs can be huge.
AL: Another benefit – and we didn't see it coming – was that it helped mental health.
AG: Sometimes it's not about pay, but knowing that the manager cares. Simple things can be a formal thank you.
The message, then, is that there are positive stories out there and we need to amplify them to boost recruitment?
CG: Yes. For instance, six restaurants were in the top 30 of the 100 Best Companies to Work for in the UK in 2021, which is amazing considering furlough didn't cover tronc. So there are lots of success stories and it's important we change that negative perception, or we all lose.
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