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Soapbox: Why 2021’s skills shortage could be the best thing to happen to the hospitality industry

Published:  26 October, 2021

For many workers in hospitality, it’s not only low pay, but aggression and isolation that are the norm. It’s time to change things, says Simon King, former operations director for Gordon Ramsay Group and co-owner of new Surrey gastropub The Victoria Oxshott.

Considering the number of challenges over the past 18 months, it may seem hard to believe that the hospitality industry is currently facing the biggest test of the lot. As businesses struggle to get back on their feet following the pandemic, many are unable to benefit from promising new business opportunities because of the unprecedented skill shortages across all areas of the industry. Many establishments are having to reduce their opening hours, cap covers and shorten menus as staffing levels limit what operators can reasonably achieve. Salaries are going through the roof as companies scrabble in a mad panic to fill ever-increasing vacancy lists, which only adds to the existing financial pressures.

Despite the hardships we all face, and as crazy as it may seem, I can’t help thinking this could be one of the best things to happen to our profession. For too long, owners and operators have exploited the vast number of passionate, hardworking, dedicated and often young individuals who enter our industry. Primarily, these individuals tend to occupy entry-level positions, usually on minimum wage. They receive minimal training, are rarely nurtured and often treated poorly.

Even in the most high-end professional establishments there has been a tendency to believe that the only way to make it to the highest levels is to create a hostile environment where aggression, abuse and isolation are the norm. Staff are pushed to breaking point in the search for perfection, and passion and commitment are irresponsibly leveraged to justify unacceptable behaviour which other sectors would not tolerate. It’s not surprising that the most dedicated professionals fall out of love with the industry. Inevitably, many decide it’s just not worth it and go in search of a job where they are respected and encouraged.

Now that our vast international talent pool has dried up, maybe, finally, employers in the sector will start to see things a little differently. Instead of taking this resource for granted, they will now appreciate the importance of having enthusiastic, dedicated staff and the impact were standards to drop and roles not to be filled.

We can talk about Brexit and Covid for putting us in this position, but the honest truth is that the hospitality industry is struggling more than any other sector because it is not appealing to the public in the same way as other industries. For all the reasons just mentioned, it’s just not seen as a ‘true’ profession, at least, not within the UK.

I strongly believe that this does not need to be the case. We have an opportunity to address this shortcoming by showcasing the vast array of opportunities, development, flexibility, security and personal fulfilment this great profession has to offer. We need to provide structure and professional discipline to nurture and develop talent, and to make sure staff are thoroughly trained and mentored. We need to inspire and motivate through positive reinforcement; to be attentive and thoughtful; to understand no one size fits one. We need to be agile, creative and resourceful; to create a fun environment which staff members want to be a part of.

There is nothing new in this. Each element of what I’ve just said is something we as a trade do every day for our guests. We’re often brilliant at it: it’s in our DNA and is what makes us what we are. For some reason, we just can’t seem to do it for each other. Somehow, hospitality professionals need to find a way to be hospitable to their own people. Company culture, integrity, respect, flexibility, communication, consistency and education need to be at the forefront of everyone’s minds. Hospitality is a team sport. Every member has a vital part to play and how they are treated will dictate the level of that performance.

We need to treat our staff as what they are – the most important asset of the business. Once we do that, we will not only elevate the level of sustained success, we will retain the passionate, hardworking staff we so heavily rely upon. We will also make massive inroads in changing public perception of hospitality as a whole.