Edmund Weil sets out a ‘manifesto’ for attracting more people into hospitality roles.
As the nation enters what threatens to be a winter of discontent, bar owners can take solace from the fact that British guests appear as ready as ever to drown their sorrows. Over September and October, trade flooded back into venues, with some bar groups reporting sales up as much as 20% on the same period pre-pandemic. We’re also finally starting to see the return of overseas visitors, precipitating the restoration of our favourite hotel bars to full operation. Although sales may not have fully recovered in all our venues, there is a palpable air of optimism, and one could be forgiven for thinking that hospitality is returning to something approaching normal.
Except, of course, thanks to the toxic combination of hard Brexit and the pandemic, the ‘normal’ we once knew is gone. I won’t bore you with the exhaustive detail of how the end of free movement, the exclusion of service charge from furlough and the long, hard 2020 winter of intermittent lockdowns and swingeing restrictions eroded hospitality’s workforce.
If you’re a regular reader, you’ve heard it all before in any case. The stats paint a stark picture: a 2017 KPMG report on Labour migration in the hospitality sector predicted that, with the supply provided by free movement cut off, by 2029 there would be a shortfall of more than a million workers in our sector.
If anything, the pandemic has accelerated these shortfalls, and bars and restaurants up and down the country are already feeling the pinch. Hospitality on most levels requires skilled, motivated people. If our recovery is going to have legs, we’re going to need to look from within to maintain not just the number of workers, but the reservoir of knowledge, enthusiasm and professionalism within our workforce. In short, over the next decade we need to attract homegrown talent into hospitality in their hundreds of thousands. We need to train them, retain them, and keep attracting more. To achieve this will take nothing short of a revolution. So here’s a manifesto of sorts:
The labour shortage has already exerted an upward pressure on wages, which is great, but with inflation looming on the horizon, these pay rises may be swallowed up by the rising prices of food and fuel. Put simply, we need to find a sustainable way to pay people enough that they don’t worry about money. Choosing hospitality as a career is unlikely to make you rich, but if it pays enough to ensure a reasonable standard of living it can prove enormously rewarding. Sadly, even this most modest of principles will be challenging for many operators to achieve.
Overheads (such as energy prices) are rising steeply, as is the cost of many goods. Conversely, many guests are more price-sensitive than ever, so raising prices may not be an option for many. The good news is that in surviving the pandemic, the more resourceful and imaginative bar operators have learned many valuable lessons and improved their offering and operations to increase spend per head and margins. A hefty chunk of these gains will need to be dedicated to pay. As the old saying goes – if your business cannot afford to pay a decent wage, perhaps you shouldn’t be in business at all.
Anna Sebastian’s piece in the last issue of this magazine addressed the issues with our lifestyle powerfully and eloquently. For a long time, hospitality has glamourised the work-hard, play-hard ethos, often masking exploitative working practices, and almost always at the cost of proper rest and relaxation. I believe this lack of focus on welfare has cost us dear, not only with the tragic loss of some our industry’s brightest lights in recent years, but also in the sense that many people – given time to reflect – have decided the perpetual stress and exhaustion just isn’t worth it and drifted away. If we’re going to have a chance of attracting and retaining talent, we need to do better.
Fortunately, there is already a growing movement within our industry focusing on just this. The likes of Tim Etherington-Judge, Camille Vidal, and Adam Smith are pioneering methods and ideas for businesses and individuals to prioritise mental and physical health as a key part of a career. I also believe that in the new entrants into our trade, who appear generationally more disposed towards moderation and self-care than the Xers and Millennials making up the bulk of the current workforce, they could find eager disciples.
It’s a well-worn trope that even the best and brightest British bartenders “fell into” hospitality and found it suited them rather than leaving school with the express ambition to be behind the bar. Hospitality and catering schools are few and far between in the UK compared to Europe, from where we’ve drawn so much of our talent for so long. Better pay and working conditions can go a long way towards making hospitality an attractive career choice to British school leavers and graduates, but to make it truly aspirational, we need to address the long-standing issue with hospitality’s image as a low-skilled, dead-end job.
We also need to communicate how rewarding and fulfilling a career in the industry can be, and how quickly someone with talent and commitment can progress. Some steps are being taken in this direction already. For instance, it was great to see Caprice Holdings opening a hospitality training academy on the former site of its eponymous restaurant back in July. Ironically, perhaps one of the best ways to attract more British people into hospitality is to reopen a path for those from abroad. Lobbying immigration policy so that high-level hospitality jobs are afforded the high-skilled visa status they deserve will enable businesses to bring in top professionals internationally. We have a world-class bar sector, and talented people from around the world coming in to take up high-profile positions in it might just prove the sprinkle of fairy dust we need to make hospitality a truly aspirational career.