“Staffing is a major issue. I’ve lost count of the hoteliers and restaurateurs commenting on mass no-shows having set up interviews – that’s if they even manage to get candidates that far in the first place!”

– Jane Pendlebury, CEO of HOSPA

“Staffing [is a challenge], as a result of Brexit related immigration challenges – there is an increasing number of vacancies, some 40% up since the start of 2021, which will impact service and the ability to retain employees.” 

– Paul Ashton, CEO at Birkin Cleaning Services Ltd

Sound familiar? 

Britain’s hospitality labour shortage has made headlines throughout the year and it’s predicted to last at least up until 2024. But is it just because of COVID and Brexit? We carried out an in-depth analysis on what’s driving people away from hospitality – and what you can do to offer better work conditions and retain talent.

Why is there a labour shortage in hospitality?

It’s hard to pinpoint when the labour shortage in British hospitality started. Some studies suggest hospitality has been understaffed at least since 2006, with a steady 90.000 unfilled vacancies since 2017. It has also had a notoriously high turnover rate for years: it was estimated to be 30% in 2019, double the UK average. But the situation has never been this dire. 

According to UKHospitality, the British Beer and Pub Association and the British Institute of Innkeeping:

  • There are currently 200.000 vacancies in the hospitality sector
  • It’s estimated that is currently 10% of the sector
  • A survey of over 350 businesses found that all had vacancies
  • 84% lack front-of-house personnel, 67% non-head chefs and 36% kitchen porters
  • Around 33% also have vacancies for managerial roles

At the same time, up to ⅕ of the staff may be isolating or quarantining at home at any given time, as a result of COVID-19 and tracing notifications from the NHS COVID app. However, statistics suggest Brexit, and not COVID-19, was the breaking point for this unprecedented shortage. 

Just before COVID-19 hit, between January and March 2020, there were 80.000 vacancies. Just in 2020, 92.000 EU workers left the hospitality industry. Before Brexit, 75% of waiting staff in London came from the EU. 

The knockout effect of Brexit and Covid-19

A significant portion of that staff returned to their home countries during the lockdown and have not returned to the UK. Although travel restrictions may have something to do with that, these ‘casual workers’ struggle to emigrate to the UK under the new points-based system. Tier-2 visas require applicants to make £25.600 per year or £10.10 per hour. As a comparison, chefs earn £18.000 per annum on average.

That leads us to another shortage Brexit accentuated: lorry drivers. Romanian and Bulgarian drivers have dropped by 24%, while Polish and Czech drivers dropped by 12%. According to Kate Nicholls from UKHospitality, the supply chain for hospitality businesses is “nowhere near resilient”. It’s estimated that 20% of deliveries for hotels and restaurants are arriving at the wrong time and with higher prices.

Britain’s favourite dish, tikka masala, could cost up to £1 more due to price changes in ingredients, including a 50% rise in spices. At the same time, restaurants and hotels are trying to fill their vacancies with increased pay and even sign-on fees. According to a survey by Caterer.com, businesses are using different techniques to try to attract and retain talent:

  • 83% provide flexible shift patterns
  • 81% invest in personal development programmes
  • 80% increased bonuses
  • 77% offer free meals

Now, is that economically sustainable? With VAT scheduled to return to 20% this April and continued supply chain challenges, some argue that restaurants simply cannot afford to offer higher salaries. 66% of employers are calling for short-term visas for foreign workers, and many are pleading for a VAT freeze to keep jobs. In any case, these expenses will soon need to be passed on to the customer. 

Are higher salaries enough to persuade people to stay on?

It would be naive to put COVID-19 and Brexit as the sole culprits. Out of those who remain in the industry, almost half (45%) are less satisfied with their work now. The reasons for their unhappiness at work? While 23% do mention COVID-19 risk, that’s less than 38% who cite difficult customers, 34% who refer schedule inflexibility, and on par with 23% who complain about their job’s physical demands.

Apart from the low wages – even with an increase of 14%, hourly pay is still below London’s £11.05 living wage and the rest of the country’s £9.90 – hospitality workers often have to endure harsh work conditions. Over 1 in 10 left the industry in 2020, using furlough as an opportunity to jump ship. Many are using their valuable experience to move into customer-care jobs, in retail or contact centres. 

One of the most common complaints among current and former hospitality workers is being poorly treated by customers, and women report being unnecessarily touched, groped, harassed, and propositioned. A 2018 study found sexual harassment was “rampant” in the hospitality industry: 9 in 10 workers said they had experienced abuse.

Overworking seemed similarly endemic to the industry. Several people report 14-hour work days on 8-hour contracts. A 2015 study, long before the industry was at a crossroads, uncovered that hospitality workers were some of the most stressed in Britain – as many as 70% felt overworked, and felt their jobs didn’t provide a good life/work balance.

Then there are zero-hour contracts, which are an ongoing source of job insecurity. In 2021, almost 25% of those employed in accommodation and food are on zero-hour contracts, more than in any other sector. Therefore, it’s not just hourly pay that’s at stake but also stability, respect for one’s time, and a safe workspace. 

“We need to look hard at what we stand for as an industry and what we can offer those working within it. It’s going to take some analysis and self-reflection to work out what makes us an attractive option, and then we’re going to need to champion those elements – while also working to improve the elements that are putting people off.”

– Jane Pendlebury, CEO of HOSPA

How to attract and retain employees in hospitality 

Intelligent scheduling

Use your data to manage shifts better with a smart scheduling system. Analyse historical trends regarding check-ins and trends to forecast how much labour you’ll need for housekeeping, catering, and maintenance. Some of these systems also have pick-up features where employees can pick up shifts of their choosing or trade them with colleagues, which allows them more flexibility. 

Positive work culture 

As businesses fight to retain talent, a positive work culture could have as much impact as higher wages. That means ending overworking, respecting people’s time off, promoting an equal and harassment-free environment, and decreasing stress and burnout. On a recent podcast from Skip the Q, Kate Nicholls suggested employers should be as flexible as they possibly can, as well as being “responsive” to what new recruits tell them.

“For me, personally, I know just how wonderful hospitality is as a career path. But, as an industry, we do too little to celebrate that fact, which, in times when we’re competing with other sectors to recruit staff, can lead to us being overlooked as a simple stopgap. I think the key is to focus on just what makes hospitality so great and then trumpet those aspects for all we’re worth.” 

– Jane Pendlebury, CEO of HOSPA

Training and career progression

Since the industry needs to attract new workers, it’s critical to show them hospitality can be a career path and not a “stopgap”. Employees, especially those starting out, appreciate the opportunity to try out different things and work on new skills. Besides, it’s good to highlight there are chances for career progression within your company – they won’t be stuck doing the same thing forever.

Immediate pay

If the industry cannot go by without zero-work contracts, then one thing employees may enjoy is being paid immediately after a shift or on a weekly basis, Kate Nicholls suggests. “Instant gratification”, as she puts it, shows people they’ve done a good job. It can also be an interesting option for people who’re picking up shifts.

4 Tips on How to manage your hotel with less staff

Prioritise your Time

Employees complain about “difficult customers”, and customers complain about staff being on edge. According to ReviewPro, negative reviews have increased and there are more mentions to staff. If you are short on personnel, focus on the activities that impact guests the most and prioritise those improvements.

Integrated Operations

Integrated Operations can save time. For example, you can integrate all messaging services in one platform to manage client requests better, or integrate property management software with maintenance software to schedule work orders. Digitising all your operations will make your team more flexible and agile.

Automated Tasks

Automation can also help to streamline repetitive tasks. For example, you can use pre-written templates to reply to reviews or a chatbot to answer frequent questions (e.g. what time is breakfast? or when does the pool bar open?) as long as they sound natural and friendly. You can upgrade your website to have online check-ins or manage table reservations, much like airlines do. And, of course, you can also use robots, like robot vacuum cleaners, to save time on housekeeping. Look around and chances are that you’ll find a time-saving solution.

Manage expectations

Another way to avoid unhappy customers and support your front desk employees is by managing expectations. Send out clear communication before check-in so that guests know upfront which facilities and services are available or not. If there’s something out of service, like a bar or the spa, try to partner with other businesses nearby to offer an alternative.

When you don’t have enough employees, you need to employ technology. After all, technology should work for us – not the other way around!