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Nick Gillett: A labour of love – hospitality’s barren job market

Published:  03 May, 2023

People have always been the heart of the hospitality industry and they always will be. Venues rely on passionate, skilful teams to run like clockwork, but the current state of the labour market means that finding any people, let alone the right ones is harder than ever.

A slight decline in hospitality vacancies was reported in March’s ONS labour data, but as UKHospitality firmly rebutted – vacancy numbers are still 56% higher than pre-pandemic levels. So, what’s caused the proverbial talent pool to drain and what can we (and the powers at be) do about it?

Well, in theory, we could do a lot. I reckon with the right support from the government and a fair amount of action, hospitality could be the powerhouse that drives forward (and maybe even rescues) the UK economy. But will those with the power to legislate start listening enough to turn the tide? I’ll let you answer that question for yourself.

Cause and effect

We all know that the difficulties started with Covid. The disastrous effects the pandemic had on hospitality businesses and the workforces therein, never recovered. And we then compounded it with the effects of Brexit. Hospitality has always relied on international recruitment. Our once thriving, diverse, ambitious pool has slowly drained away, as people left for other industries (or countries) and were never replaced due to tightening immigration laws.

The result of the above is an extensive list of vacancies across both the hospitality and drinks industries, exorbitant recruitment costs, and difficulty finding the right people – not what businesses need at a time when absolutely everything costs more.

Blocking back to work

Right now, the UK has a difficult task to complete (one of many): getting people into work, whether they’re school-leavers or 50-somethings. You could say that our industry is the perfect solution. We have great training and education, flexible hours, pathways to progression, and plenty of diverse roles to be filled. But the government is not only putting the onus on employers to bring people to work, they’re actively making it more difficult for us to do it. Take London as an example – soaring travel costs, lacking childcare provisions, the new ULEZ coming into play, never mind the politicking that’s going on with things like migration. It’s not exactly making it an easy sell.

Then we look at all the outside factors squeezing hospitality even tighter; soaring energy costs, duties increased by 10%, and the rise in corporation tax. All of which have a two-fold effect – causing owners to reduce staffing levels and increase prices for customers. It seems that as an industry we truly are being piled upon by progress-blocking policies.

A question of age

Aside from dwindling numbers and futile legislation, another change I see in the labour market is around recruitment expectations and dare I say… demands? Job hopping and quick progression are all very well for the new breed of ambitious young professionals but unrealistic salary requests, hours, and unfeasible home working patterns are more common than ever before. And whilst I think it’s right for quality candidates to demand quality terms, it has to be sensible in the broader context of the business. At Mangrove we have an exceptional team, one of the best in the industry (albeit I’m biased) but we put lots of effort into inspiring loyalty from everyone who works with us. We do that through hybrid working options, being flexible where we can, and really investing in our teams’ well-being (on top of fair remuneration of course).

I have to applaud the new generations entering the industry too – they’re thirsty for knowledge, hungry for progression, and they really are driving the sector forward. I think you only need to look at some of the new-ish venues out there, like the Hawksmoor chain, who aren’t just offering a great product but have also built-in purpose: sustainability, fair recruitment, etc – so much so that they’ve achieved certified B Corp status.

At the other end of the market, are the weathered old hands like mine. We’ve been here for years, carefully crafting our trade and now we need to ensure our legacy. I had the good fortune to walk into a room recently, filled with old colleagues and contemporaries – most of which were of my ‘vintage’. Looking around the room I saw a variety of successes, with a lot of us filling senior positions in drinks and hospitality, having never even left the industry. There’s a lesson there for the young and hungry: there are other sectors out there that will offer you more money, but none that will be as fun and as rewarding. And maybe we, as recruiting parties, need to remember that when we’re trying to attract new talent. We can ‘sell’ the industry as one of vibrancy, vigour, and job satisfaction – it’s seductive even if it’s not the highest paying.

The solution

I started off by saying that hospitality could be the government’s secret weapon to revive the UK economy. Here’s how, in my mind, we do it.

First, we need the government to create an environment that gives hospitality businesses a fighting chance. Funding for apprenticeships, back-to-work schemes, and incentives to get people on board are vital to drive change. On top of that – let’s stop the eternal squeeze on the industry. Can something be done to cap energy costs, the rise in corporation tax, or the 10% duty increase? Our lobbying groups and industry bods keep plugging the message, but so far it seems to have fallen on deaf ears.

Then there’s what we, ourselves, can do. In my mind, it all starts with delivering the very best service and products. There’s arguably more of an appetite for dining out than ever before, but consumers are being more discerning with their spending. So, let’s reset the standards, get creative, and teach the skillsets required to dazzle customers.

We, as employers, also need to invest in talent. When new people enter the labour market, we need to be willing to take the time, money, and effort, to transform raw talent and enthusiasm into skill and experience; not just search for old hands to get the job done.

There seems to be a bit of movement in the right direction, but we’ve got some way to go before we can confidently say we’ve recovered. Will those in charge listen up and start legislating to get the ball rolling? We’ll see.