What's the solution to hospitality's staffing crisis?

02 June 2021 by

The double whammy of Covid and Brexit has stripped the industry of some of its best workers, some through redundancy, some through finding a better deal elsewhere after a long furlough. Rosalind Mullen looks at the staffing crisis and discovers how some businesses are working to fill their vacancies.

When the latest lockdown measures were loosened, those who have survived the past year could realistically expect to see a rush of business from cooped-up Brits. But when operators sent out the call for staff to return from furlough this spring, they may have had a bitter shock.

Many employers had to let staff go during the pandemic, while others now find their furloughed staff have moved on. Kate Nicholls, chief executive at UKHospitality, says about two million workers were on furlough in the most recent lockdown and has cited a survey by Fourth that claims 660,000 jobs were lost across the sector during the pandemic. Studies also claim that a million people left the UK during 2020 – many returning to their EU homes following Brexit – with a disproportionate number having worked in hospitality (see below).

Certainly, recent media reports reveal shocking shortfalls in staff across the board since the first lockdown, with giants such as PizzaExpress needing to recruit 1,000 people, and Mitchells & Butlers reported to have lost 9,000 of its 39,000 staff.

So how can employers re-engage their workforce, plug the employee gaps, and train those who have returned to hospitality to bring the sector back to its pre-Covid performance?

Tempted away

To hospitality industry veterans a staffing crisis is nothing new. In the past decade, many employers and industry bodies have been working hard to address it by raising the industry's image – improving training, working conditions, career paths, flexible working and so on. But the combination of Brexit and Covid has thrown new challenges into the mix.

Under furlough regulations, for instance, staff could take other jobs (home delivery and essential retail recruited during the pandemic) and there is a risk they, like the EU workers, won't return.

As The Caterer went to press, Carol Cairnes, director of people at D&D London, said that until its 38 UK restaurants fully reopen, the problem would be hard to assess. "We believe about 20% of our workforce leftt the UK during lockdown and many have not returned, yet. Many people took other jobs during lockdown, but as far as we are aware, only a handful of our staff have left the hospitality industry completely."

The key, perhaps, is that D&D, which won the Best Internal Covid Training Programme award at Springboard's Virtual Awards for Excellence, started the hard work during lockdown. As well as keeping furloughed staff engaged through online classes designed to upskill in areas such as food and wine, it has focused on preparing employees for their return through bespoke training webinars. The focus is now switching to mental health and wellbeing initiatives, with all the senior team becoming qualified as mental health first-aiders, which, says Cairnes, "is extremely important, post-Covid."

With all recruitment, onboarding and training now online, the system can reach more people quickly. "We are working on new training materials designed specifically for those who are new to our industry, to discover new talent. We are also developing training resources to multi-skill our workers; for instance, waiters are learning technical bartending skills," says Cairnes.

Quantity over quality

But how easy is it to recruit new staff? Government figures show unemployment is at 4.9%, so jobseekers are out there. The problem, however, is a lack of skilled applicants, says Hannah Horler, managing director at Cartwheel Management Recruitment.

Hannah Horler
Hannah Horler

"The market is picking back up… [but while] there are many people actively looking for jobs, [employers] don't appear to be getting the quality they are looking for, so are reaching out to an agency. The challenge then is, will there be enough quality candidates to go around?" she says.

Horler adds: "A lot of clients are looking for something different post-pandemic. Will the people who have been retained during the last 12-plus months be open to making a move, or will they feel a sense of loyalty to their employer?"

And she is not optimistic about skilled workers returning from furlough jobs in other industries. "There is evidence of people who were previously in management roles deciding to leave the industry altogether and they have embarked on a new career," she says.

There is evidence of people who were previously in management roles deciding to leave the industry altogether and they have embarked on a new career

All this brings the industry back to the ongoing task of improving hospitality's image as a career choice. Indeed, before the twin assault of Covid and Brexit, employers displaying good practice already had strategies in place to attract and retain good people through upskilling and providing career paths.

That's why John Bennett, co-chief executive at BaxterStorey, is upbeat: "We've continued training and developing our people throughout the pandemic, with many of our locations remaining open to provide services to essential workers. We are welcoming more team members back as more locations open across the UK."

Recognising that the world has shifted, the foodservice company is training its teams to adapt to the new hospitality environment, including being able to use contactless technology, innovate grab-and-go offers and follow heightened hygiene processes.

Bennett, like others, believes the industry needs to work together to tackle the skills shortage and so the company has joined forces with organisations such as Springboard and Food Service Circle. "In the long term, we must do more as an industry to attract talent and showcase hospitality as a brilliant career option, particularly to young people," he says.

Training talent

However, the challenges of the past 12 months have curbed employers' best intentions to recruit college-leavers or young people.

As Chris Gamm, chief executive of Springboard, explains: "We're experiencing the largest staff shortfall of all UK sectors, as reported by UKHospitality. If we take young people specifically, 30,000 a year would usually enter the hospitality sector, which simply hasn't been possible in light of the pandemic."

To create an engaged talent pipeline, he urges business leaders to prioritise training the next generation. "The industry can't continue to thrive on its existing talent pool. New recruits are essential – and it is important that we are reaching out to young people in schools and colleges, too. Hospitality needs not only chefs and service expertise, but experts in technology, finance, IT, HR and marketing."

To take the pressure off employers, the charity launched a new initiative last year called Springboard to 2022, which aims to have 10,000 young people trained and ready for work by 2022 across a broad spectrum of roles.

"We're acting as a central hub to seek out, secure, train and nurture the future talent pipeline ready for when the industry needs it. We will then work with those we've trained to help them identify roles and get them into employment," says Gamm.

Over the past 12 months alone, Springboard has trained 1,917 people through its employability programmes, which equip young and disadvantaged people with careers advice, life skills and industry qualifications. The charity typically expects to get 65%-70% of its trainees into work. The pandemic means the jobs haven't been there, but it's now a source waiting to be tapped.

"Our trainees are engaged and ready to work and we want to hear from employers able to offer them job opportunities," says Gamm. "They typically remain with their first employer for 18-24 months, nearly twice as long as the industry average."

Our trainees are engaged and ready to work and we want to hear from employers able to offer them job opportunities

Sandra Kelly, UK director at People 1st International, urges businesses to build relationships with accredited hospitality colleges. "These colleges have been continuing to do a fantastic job, confident that students will be armed with the skills needed to support the industry as it rebuilds," she says.

Flexing recruitment

After the tumult of the past year, feedback from employer members of People 1st's Hospitality Skills & Quality Board reveals that many are seeing an opportunity to take a new approach to recruitment.

"Employers have been forced to restructure their business operations with fewer jobs and a higher reliance on automation and multi-skilling," says Kelly.

Sandra Kelly
Sandra Kelly

Technology, which was embraced during lockdown, is continuing to streamline training, recruitment and engagement. As well as automating back-office processes, technology means departments such as HR, marketing and finance can offer flexible working or working from home, and this may also attract those with transferable skills from other industries. Similarly, up-skilling and multi-skilling staff improves career prospects and boosts retention.

"To ensure the industry can attract and retain the best talent, a step-change is required. A cultural overhaul to develop more responsible leaders and managers with social conscience and who treat their people better is crucial if we are to change existing perceptions and highlight the diverse opportunities and fantastic careers available, and to show that the industry is changing for the better," adds Kelly.

From a skills perspective, even more importance will be placed on hygiene, health and safety, product knowledge and legislation. "Rising in importance will be resilience, agility, customer service and emotional intelligence skills," she adds.

Get engaged

Canny operators are making the most of apprenticeships. While completions dropped in the first six months of Covid, numbers have bounced back since October, and the infrastructure to support apprentices – including training providers and end-point assessment organisations – have been adapted for remote working.

"Introducing professional standards in recognition of the skills, knowledge and behaviours required to work in the industry is fundamental if we want to professionalise the industry. Individuals want their competencies validated – and in turn this will strengthen the attraction and retention of talented employees," says Kelly.

Skilled jobseekers, meanwhile, are voting with their feet. Tom Wortley, general manager at the 49-bedroom Haycock Manor hotel in Wansford, Cambridgeshire, furloughed the original hotel team – none of whom were EU citizens – and has since recruited a further 100 people, including new team leaders and core staff.

Having completed 12 months of renovations, the hotel will reopen in June as a member of Pride of Britain Hotels with two restaurants and a gym. The second phase in August will include a cookery school and spa.

As Wortley explains: "At opening we will have gone from the original 30 staff to a team capable of operating the refurbished business, which is around 130. We've been able to recruit amazing talent due to the excitement this project is generating. "

He believes the recruitment drive was successful because candidates were offered the chance to grow with the business. An online flow training programme has been set up to engage the new team, followed by onsite training and soft launch rehearsals.

One sector that has emerged with fewer staffing issues than many is aparthotels. As Supercity Aparthotels' managing director, Philip J Houghton, says: "The aparthotel sector operates a business model that is lighter in some areas of service than a traditional hotel. Ultimately we have a smaller on-property core team."

The privately owned group, comprising of six properties in London, Brighton and Manchester, has lost a small number of staff who returned to their native countries, but thanks to a family culture of flexibility and commitment, it didn't affect the running of the business.

As a result, its expansion plans are going ahead. "We secured £10m equity last year to grow our portfolio across key locations in the UK and our plans to expand remain unchanged," says Houghton.

It will require a recruitment drive, but he's clearly confident about what he offers employees: "Traditionally many of our roles have been filled by staff referrals," says Houghton.

The Brexit effect: Has Covid masked the real fall-out from Brexit?

Before anybody had even heard of Covid-19, there was widespread fear that Brexit would trigger a staffing crisis. A British Hospitality Association (BHA) Labour Migration report in 2017 predicted a scenario whereby the tougher rules on EU workers would lead to a shortfall of 60,000 workers a year in the industry.

According to the report, a quarter of the three million people working in the sector in the UK were EU nationals, rising to 38% in London. Overall, 43% of low-level, non-managerial jobs in hotels and restaurants were filled by overseas workers.

Changes to the UK immigration system post-Brexit mean that, as of 31 January, any ‘low-skilled', non-UK workers earning less than £20,480 cannot be employed in this country. This clearly affects the hospitality sector, which has relied on non-UK workers to fill many entry-level jobs – as well as skilled roles.

In the meantime, Covid has thrown a curve ball. Many of those who have lost their jobs or been furloughed have moved to other industries, and at least a million workers – with a disproportionate number from the hospitality industry – are believed to have returned to their home countries, perhaps never to return.

Recent figures from jobs site Adzuna show a surge in hiring, with nearly a million vacancies listed, up 18% on late March. But it warned that overseas jobseeker interest from Europe and North America had halved, a decline of 250,000 since February 2020, just before Covid hit the UK.

So, is the current staff shortage post-Covid the tip of the iceberg before the real effects of Brexit kick in?

Further fall-out from Brexit is inevitable, says D&D London's director of people Carol Cairnes: "Without a doubt, leaving the EU will leave us with a much smaller talent pool and therefore create a massive skills shortage."

Springboard chief executive Chris Gamm goes further: "I believe the pandemic is masking the effects of Brexit and the true position won't be seen for six to 12 months," he says. "There was already a staffing crisis and post-Brexit and post-Covid, it will likely be worse."

Like many, Gamm believes the double impact is a wake-up call for the industry to pivot: "Previously, the industry has heavily relied on workers from across Europe, and post-Brexit organisations need to be sourcing local talent," he says. "As well as training and upskilling future talent, businesses need to source diverse employees."

Hannah Horler, managing director at Cartwheel Management Recruitment, agrees that Covid hasn't just masked Brexit; it has added new challenges. "The potential staffing crisis has been further impacted by hospitality professionals taking on different roles during the pandemic and finding they can make a career out of it and therefore don't plan to return to the industry," she says.

It doesn't matter if the real villain is Covid or Brexit – competition for staff will be fierce. But Sandra Kelly, UK director at People 1st International, is hopeful that staff who have been treated well by employers over the traumatic past year will repay that kindness in loyalty: "Managers with high levels of emotional intelligence have remained in contact with employees, considerate of their wellbeing, and those employees will come back, and their levels of loyalty will be on a different scale."

Managers with high levels of emotional intelligence have remained in contact with employees, considerate of their wellbeing, and those employees will come back

Illustration by 2000-2006 Adobe Systems, Inc. Brexit photo: Ivan Marc. Both shutterstock.com

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