The Search for Talent

Words by Caitlin Allwood

Over the last few weeks in the build-up to hospitality re-opening, there’s been a buzz in the office as the team begin to re-engage with clients and candidates. Every day we are adding another job to our ever-growing list of vacancies and are being asked to help businesses rebuild their teams. The truth is we’re busier than ever, but there’s one noticeable difference that we didn’t really see coming and that is the lack of great talent.

On social media, the threads get longer and longer as businesses are left perplexed at the lack of applications as they desperately scramble around trying to replace the staff they have lost in the last 14 months. Kate Nicholls of UKHospitality told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme (29th of April), that based on the data she has, the shortage was at its greatest in more senior roles. However, what we are seeing is a lack of suitable applications coming through at all levels – this drought is widespread and indiscriminate. Not only is it at all levels, but it is impacting most businesses too. We’re seeing great places to work with incredible people at the top who are struggling to get the right people in.

Really, should we have seen this coming? 

In short, yes. You would have been hard pushed to find a hospitality business that had never suffered staffing issues before now, then add to that Brexit and a pandemic, it’s the perfect storm.

To add to this there also appears to be a steady trickle of hospitality staff who, upon being asked to return to work, have handed in their notice at the most inconvenient time for their employers. You’d think that with all these people leaving, there’d be more applications coming through, but that’s simply not what is happening.

Michael Caines told BBC News that he believes Brexit, the pandemic and furlough, are to blame for the struggle stating employees are sticking with current employers due to the uncertainty of things “A lot of people feel very concerned about leaving a job where they qualify for furlough to take the new job where they wouldn’t qualify for furlough if there was another lockdown,”.

However, is that the reason we’re seeing such a significant shortage? Who’s to say those who are on Furlough will want to switch to a different hospitality business when it ends or that more certainty around the future of the sector would see an influx in applications.

So, why aren’t we getting applications through for vacancies and where are the staff that have given in their notice, going to? 

We spoke to one Restaurant Manager in Birmingham who told us he’d had a senior member of his team give in their notice only a couple of weeks before re-opening indoors. The business had put the employee on the government’s Furlough Scheme and after confirming the dates staff were to return full-time, revealed she was leaving to work in a different sector. She explained she wanted her evenings and weekends to herself and that her new career offered her that.

For Tonic as a hospitality recruitment company, when we’ve caught up with candidates this is a story we’re hearing more and more often; that people have taken on jobs in the last year to tide them over and as we inched closer to reopening have decided that they don’t want to return to hospitality life. Reasons for switching sector vary, but the one that keeps cropping up is the work-life balance. It’s what most people want now and the last year has given them a taste of exactly that.

Unsociable hours in hospitality might be an issue for some, but there are plenty of other reasons, such as workers feeling like the sector isn’t valued and that the job they do is deemed as “unskilled”, it doesn’t really make it sound like an attractive career choice, does it? Despite the shortage the industry is facing, roles in this sector are not on the government’s ‘Skilled Worker visa: shortage occupations’ list.

In some senior roles in hospitality, the pay can be good or even above average, however, it’s often the case that even in senior roles with the hours worked the value of the salary decreases somewhat and staff can effectively be getting paid below minimum wage. Pay and how it is structured was an area of concern for people who were put on Furlough who discovered that their Tronc would not be included. This resulted in many staff being forced to leave their jobs because they could not afford to live on 80% of their basic wage. It’s estimated that some employees’ Tronc payments can make up to a staggering 40%* of their pay. Many of those who were caught short will be wary of returning to the industry because of this.

One of the other causes for people leaving the industry is that it can be seen as being youth-oriented and as employees find commitments outside of work, such as a partner and starting a family they often see that as the end of their hospitality career and because the industry can’t adapt to the lifestyles of grown-ups and their commitments. We often hear from men and women who tell us they want more family time and since the pandemic, this has been exacerbated.

There’s also Brexit. According to Big Hospitality, there’s been a significant drop in EU nationals in the industry. In Q1 in 2019 48.6% of new starters in hospitality were from the EU, compared to Q1 in 2021 where this has dropped to 34.9% and is expected to plummet even further. Although there isn’t any data on this currently, we also suspect that some of the workers who were employed in the UK pre-Covid were let go when the pandemic hit and left to return to their home country.

None of us really know exactly what’s around the corner but the sector cannot wait for the tide to turn and it’s now time to be proactive.

What can businesses do now? 

When hiring, businesses really need to think outside the box and consider applications that they maybe wouldn’t have done so previously, and it is now about getting the right people in. This way of recruiting requires more investment and time from businesses but looking at someone’s transferable skills could be the way forward. Ask yourself about the journey you want your business to take and ask, “do I want this person on the bus?”.

Now is the time to work on creating a diverse workforce. Is your business set up to accommodate everyone, or is how you do things only going to appeal to one demographic?

We’re now in a candidate-led market which means that the value of candidates has gone up. This means hospitality operators need to think more about what makes working for them attractive. What can you offer the candidate? You need to sell the opportunity.


Can I offer a good work-life balance?

Can I offer career progression?

Could I add in a government-backed apprenticeship as part of the package?

Can I put up the salary?

Could someone with a family work in my business?

When we think of sustainability we often think about food and the environment, but what about creating a sustainable environment for your staff? It’s possible that the way we’ve all been working hasn’t necessarily been that sustainable and that at some point there was always going to have to change. In a Code Happiness in Hospitality report from 2020, 73% of respondents said they would recommend the industry as a career which although down from 81% in 2019, is still really high so we know there’s hope.

It’s easy to over-simplify why we’re in this state of influx and condemn staff for “taking advantage” of Furlough and leaving the industry, but the issue around staffing is not a new one and now is the time to listen and ask why they left. Moving forward requires us to look at the situation from the other person’s point of view and to try to understand.

Are you struggling to find the right people for your hospitality business? We’re here to help, get in touch with us here.

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