The Reasons Why It’s So Hard to Hire in Hospitality Right Now

Trends 11 minute read 23rd August 2021

It’s thought that there’s a shortfall of around 188,000 workers in the UK hospitality industry at the moment.

Impacted mainly by the COVID-19 pandemic but exacerbated by the fallout from Brexit, this crisis in staffing is affecting operators across the globe.

The UK government has suggested that it is “doing everything we can to support hospitality”, but word from the frontline isn’t particularly encouraging.

So, what has gone wrong? And, more importantly, how can the hospitality industry bounce back and win back the trust of its brilliantly talented workforce?

Hard to hire in hospitality - lost staff

Word from the frontline

It’s a problem that takes irony to a new level. For months and months the hospitality industry suffered dreadfully at the hands of the global pandemic.

Lockdowns came and went, leaving operators with the unenviable choice of either spinning their operations up and down each time (no mean feat) or simply shutting up shop until life returned to some form of normality.

In the UK, that time arrived in July, when most of the stringent restrictions were lifted from public locations.

Great! Or at least, it would be, if there wasn’t a sudden, unexpected staff shortage.

“I’m surprised just how hard it has been to find front of house staff right now,” explains Joe Warwick, a restaurant manager in Soho, in an interview with The Evening Standard. “I thought with a new Michelin star, good hours – we close Sunday, Monday and Tuesday – and decent rates of pay it would be easy but there doesn’t seem to be anyone out there.”

The Brexit affect is partly to blame. With the UK exiting the European Union, many EU workers headed in the opposite direction. That left British workers to fill the gaps, but the pandemic has clearly dented confidence among that crowd, too.

Steven Cobb, General Manager of Megan’s in St Albans, doesn’t mince his words when revealing the extent of the problem in an interview with The Guardian.

“It’s a crisis in this branch,” he says. “It’s such a massive issue. I have spent all this week just trying to recruit chefs.”

Cobb goes onto explain that he’d normally have a working team of 55 staff members, but was 20 short at the time of the interview. He also notes what he believes to be the main reasons for the shortage, which clearly extend beyond the more recent societal issues. He cites the following:

  • hot working conditions;
  • long hours;
  • high skill levels required for the best positions; and
  • pay that has “never been great”.

He’s even tried increasing the hourly pay to £12 in a bid to sniff out any hospitality staff in hiding. But that didn’t work, either.

Clearly this is a very real problem. But how big is it and when can we expect some light at the end of the tunnel?

The size of the challenge

There are some stats that don’t make for pleasurable reading, but they do put the challenge faced by the hospitality industry into stark context.

According to an article in The Guardian:

  • Mitchells & Butlers (the UK’s largest pub group) has lost 9,000 of its 39,000 staff in the last 12 months;
  • upmarket restaurant chain D&D is now looking for 400 recruits to top up its 1,300 workforce; and
  • Pizza Express needs around 1,000 staff, having laid off considerably more than that last year.

These are the big names, too. Imagine how that cascades down throughout the industry; picture the struggle of small restaurant operators and country pubs who simply cannot find the staff they need to fully reopen.

This has resulted in some restaurants offering “silly money” for low-level positions, often with no luck in finding anyone to fill the role.

It’s also clear that the departed EU workforce is unlikely to return. They’re long gone, and with Brexit’s rules tightening and what is clearly an industry that’s struggling to keep its head above water, you can’t really blame them.

Why are people refusing to come back?

Robb Kirby-Wilson spent 25 years in the hospitality industry before leaving his job during the pandemic.

“I had enough of the unsociable hours,” he says. “I had enough of the low wages, I had enough of being spoken to like a second-class citizen. I got to the point of thinking: there’s more to life than this.”

Work-life balance has always been the elephant in the room for hospitality workers. Some have no problem with it, and indeed make the most of time off when their friends and family are sat behind desks.

But for others, it’s just too much, and a global event like COVID-19 has clearly been the tipping point for many of them.

According to Adzuna, the average salary across the hospitality industry is £24,000 per year. That’s around £10,000 lower than the average salary of other jobs.

Hard to hire in hospitality - quote and stats

Although challenging, that has always driven people in the hospitality industry to work harder, climb the ladder and, one day, perhaps own their own venue. But now, the low wages simply don’t bear the weight of the risk involved in working in an industry that is clearly more susceptible than the rest to global catastrophes.

The result is one in five workers having left the sector since March 2020, and a massive 102,000 vacancies for hospitality roles during April to June this year.

However, let’s reach for a huge pinch of salt and try and temper this apparently endlessly gloomy outlook. Since 2017, hospitality job vacancies have consistently sat at around 90,000. That is staggeringly high, but has been the case long before Brexit and COVID-19.

This begs the question: what can hospitality operators do to find the staff members they so badly need?

How to ramp up recruitment efforts

If you run a hospitality business, you have two options: either curse the lack of staff… or do something about it.

That might sound frustratingly simple coming from someone sat behind a keyboard, but there are many tried and tested methods being employed by the best in the business to find workers.

Here’s the pick of the bunch.

Look at what you’re offering them. What if your employee package wasn’t particularly great before the pandemic? As we’ve learned today, many of hospitality’s staffing challenges have simply been exacerbated by recent events. So, review your employee packages, salaries and benefits from the ground-up.

  • Review your recruitment channels. If you’re simply waiting for the right people to find your job adverts on Indeed.com, you might be waiting an awfully long time. Widen the net and look for people where you’ve never looked before. LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook groups are ideal hunting grounds.
  • Raise hourly wages and make a noise about it. If you haven’t increased your minimum hourly rate for staff, now is the time to do so. But don’t expect that alone to supercharge your job adverts. You need to shout loud and proud about any changes you make to this most basic of staff remunerations. Get on social and have someone whip up some graphics to highlight how wonderful it is to work at a venue like yours.
  • Reveal the growth and learning opportunities. Make sure you implement regular training and learning opportunities for your staff and, once again, be vocal about the availability of these perks. Because they will be seen as perks by potential staff.

We’re not suggesting this is easy. Clearly, there is a staffing crisis of epic proportions at the moment, but if we’re honest with ourselves, the numbers aren’t that much different to what they’ve consistently been.

More importantly, worldwide events like COVID-19 have simply swung a far brighter spotlight onto the inherent recruitment and reward issues in the hospitality sector. It’s a hard pill to swallow, but if you suspect this period requires a good, long hard look in the mirror, now is the time to take it.

Don’t feel bad, either - we’re all in this together, and there are very few hospitality businesses who aren’t feeling the same way. The path ahead is tricky, but if you can raise your employment game and reward workers handsomely, they’ll slowly begin to return and help you reach even greater heights with your business.


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