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Nick Gillett: Staffing issues yet another blow under a government failing hospitality

Published:  08 April, 2024

The UK government recently announced that it would create 20,000 new apprenticeships by reforming the complex, paperwork-fuelled, resource-thirsty apprenticeship levy system for SMEs. A move that should benefit hospitality businesses up and down the country by bringing in new blood at the beginning of their careers. Phrases like ‘cut red tape’ and ‘regulatory burdens slashed’ appear throughout the government’s official, grand announcement – but forgive me if I retain my cynicism for now. This is coming from a government that has done nothing but increase the burden on business. And I’ll come back to that shortly.

The labour market for hospitality is challenging. To put it simply we need more workers. As well as a complete repositioning of our industry to attract employees from other sectors, we need meaningful support from all governments across the UK, if we’re to win back our pre-pandemic buoyancy. Here’s my tuppence worth on the whole situation.

Under pressure

Before I talk about the hospitality labour market, I have to set the scene. And it’s not a pretty one.

Increasing Corporation Tax, increasing National Insurance, increasing labour costs, increasing duties on spirits, increasing interest rates, increasing rents and rates – this is the true picture of what spirits and hospitality businesses are facing. And don’t be fooled by the odd rates freeze here and there – ultimately, it’s all on the rise. The UK’s business environment is now one where small operations with tight cash flows are unlikely to succeed, let alone thrive. So, before you’ve even sold a cocktail, served a customer, or hired a member of staff, you’re already significantly worse off than you were this time last year. And if, through all of this, you do succeed, well there’s little reward. More burden, more pressure, and less support awaits.

In the latest Spring Budget, the government increased the National Minimum Wage and National Living Wage – a move which, without being too political, I wholeheartedly agree with. It’s the right thing to do. But to do this without acknowledging the added financial pressure this puts on businesses, let alone mitigate against it – is ruthless.

While we in the industry have a lot to do to solve the problem of recruitment, it would be a lot easier with the support of the government. But that we simply don’t have.

A vital ‘repositioning’

To be brutally honest, hospitality in the UK isn’t an industry of choice for many jobseekers. I think this is largely due to misconceptions like low-pay, unsociable-hours, and lack of opportunity for career progression. What hospitality actually is, is an industry that’s filled with creativity, fuelled by diversity, having an abundance of different career paths, global opportunities and flexibility in terms of working patterns. Not to mention the main subject matter is pretty delicious too.

The majority of people within the UK still don’t view hospitality as a career, as a place where you start work and stay. And I would argue that a lot of British nationals in the spirits and hospitality industries didn’t plan to end up there but instead fell in love with it from behind the bar and then never left.

I think back across the last 20 years, when, especially in London, you’d see an influx of people from across the globe; Australians, South Africans, Europeans, all come to the UK to work in hospitality, some for a bit of life experience, some to perfect their English. Bars and venues across the country ran on international teams and they were all the better for it. Now, with Brexit and the resultant paperwork, sponsorship costs, and a less than hospitable atmosphere for international citizens – we’ve lost a huge portion of that talent, and people here in the UK just don’t want to fill those jobs.

The culture shift

Another issue I think the industry is facing is the workplace culture-shift to home-working. Tech, finance, and the creative industries are just a few sectors that are now embracing remote working. And for hospitality – that’s simply not an option.

But beyond the practical reasons behind that (you can’t serve a customer a cocktail from your living room) I think there are other great things about being in the office. Like learning, for one. It’s all very well if you’re long in the tooth with years of professional experience, but if you’re in the early stages of your career, there’s a lot you miss out on working remotely. Holistically soaking up the expertise, character and influence of your colleagues is just not possible virtually. Our future workforce is already losing out on what we gained from our peers and seniors – and only time will tell what’s been lost there.

In recent recruitment for Mangrove, we’ve had these requests from consummate professionals – ‘can the role be fully remote?’, ‘can we be flexible on in-office days?’. But we’ve stood our ground. Yes, it has sometimes made recruitment harder, though I’m glad we did. Without blowing the company trumpet too hard, we’ve an incredible team. We’ve brought in some real talent, and a good bit of that recently has come from the hospitality industry, as opposed to the world of spirits. Our team have time together, in person, and they’re tighter and enriched because of it. My word of advice to anyone who’s recruiting right now is to be patient and, if you’re treating your staff right, stand firm on your values. The right people are out there and they’re worth waiting for.

So, where’s it all headed? Well, it’s not just hospitality facing pressure, but a whole range of sectors. And this might just be good for us. As weak economic conditions trigger various tech layoffs, we might see talented people pivot on their transferable skills into spirits and hospitality. So, now’s the time to shout about the benefits of our industry. Share your experience, shout about your job satisfaction and generally make the most of your day-to-day role. I firmly believe this sector is the most vibrant, rewarding and dynamic you can work in – and the people are pretty great too. Let’s play our part in bringing people in and hope that at some point in the not-so-distant future, the UK government eventually offers us some meaningful support.