Recruiting career staffin UK hospitality has never been more hard work. But Ellen Manning says, despite the challenges, the right incentives could help nurture the next generation.

Ask any bar owner to list the challenges they’re facing and the word recruitment won’t be far from their lips. Casual labour isn’t so much the problem, but those committed to hospitality as a full-time career, those people are still scarce. The issue is arguably even more acute in the UK, where hospitality still – even now – has an image problem. And since the double whammy of Brexit and Covid that tap of talent from Europe – where hospitality is more widely seen as a career – has turned from a steady flow to blockage.

The numbers are clear. According to a report by Oxford University’s Migration Observatory, the number of EU employees working in British hospitality dropped by 25% between June 2019 and June 2021. Other figures suggest between 2021 and 2023 the number of jobs held by EU nationals also fell by a quarter, leaving vacancies in the sector soaring by 48%.

There’s never been more of a need for homegrown hospitality talent, yet recruitment still isn’t easy. An even bigger challenge than Brexit and Covid may be to change domestic attitudes – particularly post-pandemic. Lockdowns were a huge challenge for hospitality, but also gave employees the chance to put their wellbeing first – something the sector, especially bartending, isn’t always conducive to. 

“We saw a mix of office workers moving into hospitality after the pandemic,” says Katie Rouse, co-founder of Couch in Birmingham. “But we also lost a similar amount of hospitality workers who realised their working cycle was fatal to their mental health, hoping to find a better work and social balance outside of our trade.”

On top of long, antisocial hours, money also plays a part. Bartending doesn’t have the reputation as the best-paid trade and, while many owners strive not only to pay a minimum wage but a living wage, rising costs coupled with a reticence to raise prices puts them in a Catch 22 position.

Rouse, who doesn’t allow staff to work more than 45 hours a week, believes better working environments are being created in many places, but admits the current economic crisis makes it difficult to make bartending appealing. “As a bar owner, all my costs have gone up astronomically, our energy bills are still four times higher than they were, alcoholic products and fresh produce cost more, but lifting our prices will potentially lose us custom. So alongside these factors of being a bar owner, we do what we can to pay our team more, but a lot don’t have the option, less than ever before.”

Put simply, it’s tougher than ever to confidently say hospitality is a great career, says Sam Espensen, owner of Espensen Spirit bar in Bristol. “Hospitality is not seen as a viable long-term career prospect. It’s not always the happiest place to be right now because everyone’s hand to mouth all the time. There is still a buoyancy, doggedness and a buccaneering spirit that will always be there. But actually, the reality is most bar owners right now are looking at the future and thinking something needs to change.”

Challenging career

The combination of its reputation as a tough working environment and the impact of a cost of living crisis – especially in London – means those who don’t have a clear passion for bartending are unlikely to commit to a career that’s both financially and mentally challenging. But for Blaise Bachelier, co-founder of Birmingham bar Fox & Chance, it’s not all doom and gloom for independent, neighbourhood bars, which can benefit from their clear commitment to the industry compared to bigger chains. “We are career bartenders, this is what we want to do, so people who love it and are passionate about this industry will flock towards bars like us – small independents who want to look after their staff , who want to really help train and develop them and see them progress.”

That passion means smaller bars take recruitment seriously, says Rouse, recruiting the right people rather than simply filling roles. Yes, it’s more time-consuming, but also means it’s more likely that person will stay in the long-term. “Most hospitality recruitment is simply rushed,” she explains, “and I completely understand why. We need bodies to run service and if we are understaff ed for whatever reason, it feels a priority.” But resisting the pressure to rush and taking time and effort to find the right people, exploring new and experienced people from different backgrounds, pays dividends when it comes to retaining talent, proven by the fact Couch has only had to recruit twice since opening over four years ago. It’s something bigger bars could do, too, she argues, if they’re prepared for the process to be more time-consuming.

In Bristol, tech is helping address different needs and attitudes, says Espensen, who regularly uses the app Limber, which means she can take on staff for shifts when she needs them, ensuring she can pay the living wage without having to commit long-term, while staff enjoy being able to sign up for shifts when they want them, giving them the flexibility they want. A great solution for torrid times, but perhaps not when it comes to finding the next generation of career bartenders. So what is?

For Matthew Jones of Picton & Co in Cardiff , looking local is more important than ever. “The bars I’ve worked in, and my personal work ethos, is to always support local,” he says. “It’s got to be homegrown talent if you ask me. People can be trained, ‘the ways’ can be taught, but what’s hard to find is proper, genuine personality. It’s rarer than people think, and it’s up to us to put those hospitality stars in positions where that’s going to shine.”

With recruitment just one in a long line of seemingly endless challenges for owners and the industry as a whole, the issue is unlikely to be solved overnight. But it’s safe to say the many complications seem destined to be counterbalanced by the passion, drive and determination of those in the industry to recruit the best, and to nurture true talent – regardless of where it’s from.