Inside the hospitality industry’s staff crisis

Following Britain’s exit from the European Union and the financial crisis resulting from the coronavirus pandemic, the hospitality sector’s talent pool has been significantly drained

As the hospitality industry begins to reopen after a series of strict and financially damaging national lockdowns, business owners are beginning to pick up the pieces after a long year. Married with Britain’s exit from the European Union in January last year, hospitality leaders are beginning to speak up about the sector’s wider issues relating to staffing. 

According to a report into labour migration within hospitality in 2017, commissioned by KPMG and the British Hospitality Association, 25.2% of the sector’s workforce was made up of EU nationals at the time. Following Brexit and the chaos of Covid-19, it is doubtful that number is the same, and has likely dropped since the industry has gone through seismic changes. 

Last week (13 April), pubs and restaurants were allowed to partially reopen for dining within an outdoor setting. With their return, groups representing dining establishments and groups revealed the outcome of thousands of workers leaving the industry to return to their home countries or take up other jobs during a pandemic has detrimentally affected operations. 

UKHospitality (UKH) estimates around two million people were temporarily dismissed from their jobs over the last lockdown, with 600,000 having lost their jobs during the pandemic. However, hoteliers have yet to see a noticeable impact on their business as they anxiously wait to reopen.

With many EU nationals having left the country, questions have risen over whether the UK has enough domestic workers to make up the difference. Furthermore, as a consequence of the pandemic, attracting international members of staff to return to their previous hotel jobs in the UK is a practical impossibility.

For Jane Pendlebury, CEO of the Hospitality Professionals Association (HOSPA), the impact for hoteliers has been separate and unequal depending on where they operate. “If you speak to a resort location, either on the coast or in the countryside, then they are full of optimism and, if not,  already fully booked for the summer,” she explains.

“The flip side of that is the city centres. Not just London, but London has been hardest hit as it relies on international travel, whether that is business travel, which is not happening at all, or a lot of international tourism. Any tourist attraction for overseas visitors, or business destinations, are really suffering and not feeling anywhere near as optimistic.”

In terms of Brexit’s impact, Pendlebury is skeptical on whether the industry is truly feeling its effect yet. “I think the influence of Brexit has been significantly diluted by the pandemic. Although we all predicted Brexit to have a dreadful effect, the hotels weren’t open at the time when it would have really hit the hardest. That doesn’t mean it’s not going to in the future,” she says.

This train of thought is shared by UK’s employment policy advisor, John Guthrie. He believes it is too early to determine Brexit’s legacy for the sector. “We just don’t know at this moment. What we do know is that before Covid, we were really concerned about the end of free movement and the consequence of a very restrictive immigration policy,” Guthrie explains.

“Basically, the new immigration system means that fundamentally, it means you can’t get a work visa for 85% of the jobs in hospitality. That is a big problem and certainly was identified before Covid as being potentially a very big problem for our sector.”

However, Guthrie is more worried about attracting new workers to the wider hospitality sector after the pandemic. While public concern for in-person working is waning, which is essential for the industry’s survival after the pandemic, Guthrie is conscious hoteliers and other businesses must do more to make a career in hospitality an appealing one.

“Certainly pre-Covid, the skills chapter on the tourism deal actually did place emphasis upon attracting the next generation of people into the hospitality workforce,” he says. “We’re revisiting that as part of the government’s tourism recovery plan. Skills, recruitment and the image of the industry is going to be a very big part of that plan.”

The Bristol Hoteliers Association (BHA), a trade body representing the city’s hoteliers, is leading the charge on the staffing crisis with its own recruitment drive. The association hopes to recruit more than 500 people in the coming weeks ahead of the 17 May reopening for hotels.

Raphael Herzog, the group’s chair, is confident the BHA’s latest effort will rejuvenate Bristol’s hotel and B&B businesses. “We’ve already seen a great pick-up for May half-term and summer already. Many hotels have a backlog of weddings; some are expecting to host between70 and 100 weddings between June and December; we need enough staff to do that,” he says.

Agreeing with Pendlebury, Raphael Herzog is of the opinion Bristol hoteliers have benefited from its location and clientele during the pandemic, compared to other areas in the UK. “Many hotels remained opened through lockdown for key workers, film crews, sports teams; Bristol performed better than many UK cities, which helped its hotels survive,” Herzog says.

Despite, Herzog is all too aware of the industry’s failure to bring in new talent into its ranks. “Most hotels used furlough to retain as many staff as possible. Before lockdown, there was difficulty recruiting chefs, housekeeping, waiting staff etc,” explains. With high demand from hotels reopening, we expect a staff shortage. 

“Brexit doesn’t help; many European staff went home when the pandemic started and it’s unclear if they’ll want to return if allowed. We’re focusing on offering better benefits, improved work-life balance, more development and training to make hospitality careers more attractive, especially to young entrants, and not just a stop-gap for students.”

One of the many schemes to attract young people to work in hospitality is Springboard 2022. The initiative, supported by the likes of the Hilton, Dorchester Collection, Village Hotels and Malmaison, have 10,000 young people trained and ready for work, in line with industry’s recovery by 2022. In order to this, the hospitality charity Springboard is set to become “the central hub” for seeking out, securing, training and nurturing the future talent pipeline.

Diego Masciaga, a leading hospitality expert who is assisting Springboard, maintains that the hospitality industry needs to evolve drastically. “The staffing crisis is not simply about Brexit or the pandemic. In this country, and in many countries, we need to focus more on education around hospitality as a career, starting at a young age,” he explains.

“There is a need for hospitality professionals to be brought into schools, not to teach them about food or wine or how to serve a steak or chicken, but to make children understand that hospitality is a wonderful profession that needs to be diversified.”

Time will tell how hotels will survive reopening after lockdown. With international tourism not being an option, hoteliers will have to adopt innovative and forward thinking business ideas to navigate the ‘new normal’ and attract the next generation of hotel workers. 


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