UK's hotels scour for talent ahead of Brexit

UK hospitality leaders used the first session of the Hospitality Workforce 2030 Commission to focus on recruitment and retention in the sector. As Brexit looms over a sector already suffering from staff shortages, employers are preparing for a “talent war” with training and even loans being used to attract employees. 

The Commission heard from speakers on a number of issues, including stigma, the need for a balanced evidence-based immigration system and the Apprenticeship Levy, used to fund apprenticeship training. A number of the speakers highlighted their disappointment that the catering and hospitality T-level (the technical alternative to the A-level, the qualification taken at age 18) would not be introduced until 2022 and called on the government to bring it forward.

“The UK’s hospitality sector is a dynamic and resourceful one, but it still faces barriers to growth, particularly regarding employment,” said UKHospitality CEO Kate Nicholls. “The Hospitality Workforce 2030 Commission will establish a comprehensive picture of the opportunities facing the sector and allow us to challenge perceptions and promote and enhance the work hospitality businesses already do.”

A written call for evidence from the Commission is currently open to the public and closes on May 25.

According to statistics from UKHospitality, an estimated 700,000 (15 percent) of the 4.5 million people that currently work in the British hospitality sector were from the European Union. Between 2011 and 2015, the number of migrant workers increased by 22 percent, with the majority of these coming from EU countries.

Declining Numbers

However, due to Britain’s decision to leave the EU, the number of people from overseas applying for new jobs within the industry was falling. In addition, data from the Office of National Statistics estimated that 130,000 EU nationals emigrated in the year to September—the highest level in a decade.

“On average, they say the number of EU workers in hotels is between 12.5 percent to 25 percent, but in some hotels and restaurants that can be as high as 35 percent to 40 percent,” Harry Murray, president of hotel association, HOSPA, said. “With less EU workers coming into the country, this poses a serious problem. We need to find solutions. Our biggest challenge now is to attract more people to join the industry.”

Some have raised concerns that the energy consumed by Brexit has meant that its requirements would be lost to politicians amidst the demands of other industries. 

“Recognizing that hospitality is a career choice for professionals—rather than just a holiday job for students—is an important message to get across to the country as a whole,” said Jane Pendlebury, CEO of HOSPA, an organization that brings together hospitality industry professionals involved in financial management, revenue management and IT. “There is a general feeling that our politicians don't value the hospitality industry, despite us being the fourth-largest employer in the county and contributing billions of pounds to the UK economy. Those of us who have worked hard and been successful are great ambassadors for hospitality. We must all shout loudly about it.”

Employers are using every resource to ensure that they can claim their share of the talent pool. 

At the end of last year, when asked about the impact of Brexit on UK hospitality company Whitbread, CEO Alison Brittain said that the firm, which counted 20 percent of its workforce as EU nationals, is not “seeing anything” yet on migration

“If this ends up as a talent war, we would undoubtedly win,” she said. “We have retention rates that are increasing and we target that as a key KPI. We have great career access at any level and we have an efficiency program, which means that we could pay more if it was required.”

Whitbread owns the Costa Coffee brand in addition to the Premier Inn hotel flag and faces competition for staff across the hospitality sector—competition that has seen rival Starbucks offering its staff interest-free loans to pay deposits on rental properties. The company also offers Apprenticeships and the National Living Wage. 

In the war for talent, the employee is the current winner. The sector must find friendly faces, but at a price it can afford. 

Katherine Doggrell is an editor at Hotel Analyst, the U.K.-based news analysis service for hotel investors.