The hospitality industry is no stranger to skills crises. As the number of restaurants and hotels has continued to grow apace in recent years, the industry has rarely been in the comfortable position of attracting sufficient numbers of suitably qualified staff.
Today, though, the crisis that is being faced is a different one. Yes, we do have a skills crisis because not enough staff with the correct expertise to do specific jobs - particularly in the kitchen - are available on the job market. But what we don't lack is labour.
The entry into the European Union of 10 mostly eastern European countries, including Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary, in 2004 - followed by the addition of Romania and Bulgaria earlier this year - has resulted in a flood of migrants entering the UK, with many of them eagerly snapping up vacancies in restaurants, hotels and catering companies.
The Government estimates that 120,000 eastern Europeans have entered the UK to work in hospitality since 2004, with more than a quarter (27%) working in London. Unofficially, the number is believed to be much higher. At the same time, although official unemployment figures published this month record a drop of 15,000 to 1.68 million in the three months to April, a study by Sheffield Hallam University claims that the number of people who are economically inactive has reached a record high.
Whatever the unemployment figures, there's no hiding from the fact that a significant section of the British workforce is not working at the same time as the hospitality industry is crying out for skilled workers. The situation is most extreme in London, where some of the boroughs in the east of the city have the highest unemployment rate of any English region, yet restaurants and hotels in the West End are desperate for skilled chefs.
"We're seeing rising employment in this country as a result of the influx of people from eastern Europe at the same time as we have fewer British people working," says Bob Cotton, chief executive of the British Hospitality Association (BHA), who is guest-editing this week's issue of Caterer & Hotelkeeper. "My concern is that we could be building up to a dangerous social scenario. In a recent survey we carried out, 24 of the largest hotels in London were shown to be employing 83% of their 7,000 staff from overseas. Why are these hotels employing from outside the UK and not taking on local staff?"
At the Four Seasons hotel in London, a quarter of the 320 staff are foreign. More than 60 nationalities work at the 219-bedroom hotel, with the majority coming from the countries that have traditionally supplied the UK with many of its employees - France, Italy, Spain, Portugal and Germany. Emma Jayne, the hotel's director of human resources, says the international nature of the hotel industry has always attracted a lot of foreign staff, and Four Seasons regularly transfers staff between London and its other properties overseas. "We don't really consider the nationality of staff when we're recruiting - what's more important is a good attitude and a warm, friendly personality," she says.
However, Michael Shepherd, general manager of the London Hilton on Park Lane, is more robust in his views on why the industry doesn't employ more British staff. "So often it's because they simply don't express the desire to work, and it hurts me to think there's a high percentage of people here in London who could do the jobs that we have," he says. "It's a great shame. It's common not to have a single British candidate for an advertised job."
The 453-bedroom hotel employs 550 permanent staff and 350 casuals. Specific jobs - such as housekeeping and technical service jobs (electrical engineers, plumbers and joiners) - have been increasingly filled in the past two or three years by east European staff. The shortage of chefs, however, is not being eased by the east European workforce"
Shepherd believes mayor of London Ken Livingstone recently got it right when he said that many of the long-term unemployed can't be bothered to get out of bed to work. Livingstone's attack came in his annual State of London address. He warned of a "whole generation being left behind", saying that many of the thousands of jobs being created by the booming London economy were being snapped up by Poles and other immigrants who have a work ethic and better skills.
Livingstone said the problem was highlighted by his daily journey to City Hall when he stops to buy a coffee. "In seven years I've only been served coffee once by a born-and-bred Londoner," added.
The contrast between the workshy British as painted by Livingstone and enthusiastic east European workers is certainly stark. Tony Hughes, managing director of the restaurant group at Mitchells & Butlers, whose brands include All Bar One, O'Neill's and Browns, says the incentive for east European staff to work hard is greater than for their British counterparts. "They know they can come here and earn four to five times the amount they can earn back home," he says. "By sending that money home they know they can make a real difference to their families. East European staff are excellent - their work ethic and attitude is first class."
It's not just jobs that are being filled by east European and other migrants. Many places on catering and hospitality courses are also being increasingly filled by overseas students. "We have a lot of Hungarians, Latvians and other east Europeans on our full-time courses," says Professor David Foskett, associate dean in the London School of Tourism, Hospitality and Leisure at Thames Valley University. "They may be at college for three days and then spend the rest of the time working very hard in the industry. But they will not provide the solution in the long term."
At the 2007 Chef Conference, keynote speaker Prue Leith warned delegates that "the wonderful stream of Polish workers is not going to last forever". While there's no denying that the job will get done - usually very well - by east European workers, it's not clear just how long they will be here to do it.
Niall Keyes, managing director of Grafton Recruitment, was recently quoted in Caterer as saying that many Poles, Czechs and Slovaks would soon be leaving the country after a three-year stint working here. Many are expected to return home to set up their own businesses, which will help to regenerate their country's economy.
But at the BHA, Cotton says that while it was originally believed that the majority of east European workers would return to their native countries, there are now signs that many are coming with their dependants and choosing to settle down here. What we can be sure about is that, in order to avoid serious problems for the future, the industry needs to be more proactive in attracting the unemployed and school-leavers into the industry.
"The industry certainly has a lot to do to market itself as a reputable employer," says Gary Hunter, head of the Department of Culinary Arts at Westminster & Kingsway College, where half the part-time students are of east European origin. "There are some companies - such as Aramark, Charlton House, Compass and Ramsay Holdings - that do fantastic work with schools in promoting themselves as potential employers. But many small to middle-sized companies need to do a lot more to attract staff."
Part of the problem, according to Foskett, is that too many young people are being pushed into academic courses rather than being steered towards vocational courses to which they may be more suited. "It's a massive disservice to the young and as a result more and more of those who start taking A-level courses are dropping out because they can't cope," he says. "The lack of high-level kitchen skills is a major problem. Not a week goes by when I'm not asked to help out with providing staff."
Operating in one of the fastest-growing sectors of the industry - the budget hotel market - Travelodge recognises the importance of encouraging potential employees to come on board. To this end, chief executive Grant Hearn has joined Ken Livingstone's London Skills & Employment Board, which aims to improve adult skills and job prospects in the capital. He will soon spend a day at a London JobCentre to see how the industry markets itself to those seeking work. "There's much we can do to attract UK workers to our business," says Hearn. "But first we need to understand why the unemployed don't see hospitality as a career with diverse and exciting opportunities."
Currently opening about 30 hotels a year - there are 317 at present with a target of 1,000 by 2020 - Travelodge has a major challenge in recruiting and developing its next generation of managers. "We need hospitality education and training to reflect the needs of a modern-day hotel business," says Hearn. "We're not seeking silver service or concierge skills - we need customer-focused management that can drive strong brand standards and develop their people." As a result, Travelodge is discussing with Westminster & Kingsway College the possibility of devising a syllabus that will cover the skills required to run a budget hotel.
"The real challenge for the industry is to ensure that people who come out of schools and colleges are employable," says Cotton. "But we're faced with a number of youngsters coming out of school who can't read and write and a group of people who just don't want to work. It's not necessarily about gaining lots of qualifications. To be a good chambermaid or waiter, we need bright people who want to work and are able to interface with the public."