The skills to pay the bills

Hospitality is facing a crisis in the supply of labour that experts believe can only be solved with a long-term strategy. Nick Hughes reports.

Hospitality – and the food sector more generally – is in the midst of a staffing crisis. A report from the environment, food and rural affairs (EFRA) Committee in April found that around one in eight food sector roles was unfilled, totalling around half a million workers. This included a critical shortage of chefs and waiting staff.

Responding to ONS employment figures from last week which showed there were 173,000 vacancies recorded in the accommodation and foodservice sector between May and July, UKHospitality CEO Kate Nicholls said that “staff shortages have been at a record high in the hospitality industry for some time, causing thousands of operators to cut trading hours or close for whole days, at a cost of £21bn in lost revenue”.

A combination of covid and Brexit have contributed towards the shortfall, but sector employers face deeper, structural challenges in attracting and retaining talent. In her evidence to the EFRA committee, Nicholls highlighted the need for a long-term labour strategy for hospitality. “We need to understand [….] what we are looking for in terms of skills, training, development, jobs, the economy, how we get from here to there and what short, medium and long-term interventions we need to help support that.”

The future of talent in hospitality was the subject of a recent Footprint Sustainability Symposium in association with Nestlé Professional in which experts highlighted some of the barriers to young people building a career within the sector. These included a perception among parents, teachers and career advisers that hospitality lacks career progression opportunities; a lack of focus on food education and food-related skills in the curriculum; and the labelling of hospitality jobs as low-skilled by government – the implication being they are not aspirational. 

As a result, “there tends to be a real disconnect between a young person’s perception of hospitality and the exciting reality of a career in hospitality,” said Amanda McDade, national head of careers & education at Springboard, the charity that supports people seeking employment within the hospitality, leisure and tourism industry.

Contributors to the symposium agreed there was a need to better communicate the breadth of career options available within the sector as well as the opportunities for rapid career progression and the potential for flexible working patterns. “We need to be supporting young people in getting that information across and using young people already working within the industry to do that,” said McDade.

People like Sophie Taylor. The chef de partie at the Gleneagles Townhouse hotel in Edinburgh shared her belief that a shift in perception was happening among some of her peers who are now actively considering a career in hospitality. Taylor cited the influence of social media and mainstream TV shows like the Great British Bake Off and Masterchef, which give viewers a flavour of what a job in hospitality could entail. “It’s just that little spark” which makes people think “it’s a career and I can do it”, she said.

Taylor is a 2021 Toque d’Or front-of-house student winner – contributors agreed that competitions like Toque d’Or have an important role to play in developing the skills needed to succeed within the sector.

Employers can also do more to appeal to young people’s passion for sustainability. Listeners were told how young people increasingly want to know that prospective employers have a purpose beyond profit. Employers that have a good sustainability story to tell can use it to attract talent.

The sector also needs to address the elephant in the room – pay. A recent Food Foundation report found that wages for food sector workers are disproportionately lower than across the wider economy; among food sector workers, kitchen, catering and waiting staff are most likely to be on or below the national minimum wage.

The sector was already working on extremely tight margins before the cost of living crisis started to bite. But contributors expressed the view that pay – in entry-level roles in particular – does need to increase so workers can support their lifestyle through a job in hospitality rather than feel they have to exit the industry to achieve financial independence.

And what of the government’s role? There was broad agreement among panellists that those in power could do more to support a sector that employs around 2.5 million people in the UK. “We really need something to change there in the government’s thinking about how they view hospitality; the importance that it has to the UK economy and also how we make it sustainable in the future,” said McDade. “We need to be able to grow that home grown talent.”

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