This article by Frank Corr appears in the July/August issue of 'Hotel and Restaurant Times'
As the Summer of 2019 reaches mid-point, thousands of young Irish people who have completed examinations are looking towards a career which will bring them satisfaction and a comfortable life style for decades to come.
Targeted by a high-impact recruitment campaign funded by Fáilte Ireland and the Irish Hotels Federation, many will look to the hospitality industry to fulfil those dreams.
The question for the industry however relates to its ability to deliver on its promises.
Among the many sectors competing for staff in a near full-employment economy, hospitality has to work exceptionally hard to attract students to its industry-related courses and school-leavers to take up jobs. Each year sees the publication of the ‘Get A Life’ magazine and website, open days in hotels, school visits and much more. Hospitality, it seems, is not an instinctive first choice as a career for a majority of school leavers.
The recruitment problem is not new in the industry, nor is it the product in the recent expansion in the hotel and restaurant sectors. Even during the black days of 2008-2010, restaurants were reporting difficulty in filling posts and much the same prevails today. The sector now has a workforce of around 260,000, having created 20,000 new jobs in 2018 and it is likely to require another 20,000 in the year ahead. The jobs range from pot-washers to general managers, and in every category, hospitality employers are facing stiff competition from other sectors of the economy. The shortage of skilled chefs gets most of the headlines, thanks to regular statements from the Restaurants Association of Ireland. Finding extreme difficulty in recruiting Irish chefs (partly because of a lack of training facilities), restaurateurs began to look to other EU countries, particularly in Eastern Europe, and when it became difficult to find chefs there, the RAI sought an exemption which would allow it to recruit chefs from Africa and the Far East.
By all accounts, chefs are among the highest earners among skilled hospitality employees, so if it is extremely difficult to attract them to work in Irish kitchens, how much more difficult must it be to attract food and drinks servers, house assistants, kitchen porters and other semi-skilled employees?.
The reality is that many of those recruited to these positions, do not see hospitality as a career, but rather a short-term solution to particular circumstances. The industry employs thousands of students every year, particularly in Summer months, and generations of Irish people are most grateful to the local hotel or restaurant for enabling them to earn enough to support a modest lifestyle. Many other employees gravitate to the hospitality sector as they await a definitive career move. This is particularly true in the case of immigrants who take hotel and restaurant jobs until they move to a definitive career path in another sector.
Employee turnover in hospitality is exceptionally high when compared to sectors such as manufacturing, financial services or IT. Internationally, employee turnover in hospitality is an eye-watering 73%, compared to 10-15% in other sectors and there is no indication that the rate in Ireland is otherwise. One restaurant manager told me this month that he counts himself very lucky if a chef or waiter remains in a job for two years. This high turnover rate compounds the recruitment problem in a growing market and the industry might well consider why it is so.
It has been well proven that pay is not the most important element in employee retention- but this is true only when employees consider their pay to be adequate to support a given life style. There are many indications that a very large number of hotel and restaurant workers receive the Minimum Wage, among them the strong protests from the IHF and RAI whenever the rate is increased. Surviving, let alone supporting a modest lifestyle, would be extremely difficult for a minimum-wage employee in Dublin or other cities, and therefore such employees are likely to move on at the first opportunity.
Many hospitality jobs also offer little opportunity of advancement. A McDonald’s team member has the chance and opportunity to rise through the ranks, but in the vast majority of cases, a porter, waiter, bar server, house assistant or security guard does not enjoy a defined career path. There are of course exceptions to this generalisation, and a small but significant number of hoteliers and restaurateurs do help employee of all grades to climb the ladder. These tend to be the companies who enjoy higher levels of staff retention and loyalty.
So too are employers who take serious note of the work difficulties imposed by the industry. Hotels and restaurants operate 365 days a year and often 24/7. All too often this results in staff working long and unsociable hours while often attempting to achieve challenging goals. Recent times have however brought a re-think of working hours and conditions by some progressive employers. Accommodation staff hours are tailored around life style demands, split shifts are eliminated or reduced and more part-time jobs have been created. This is not rocket science. In fact many of the changes have been introduced following discussions with the staff involved. There has also been some movement towards helping employees cope with accommodation costs and shortage. A number of upscale staff housing blocks have come on stream and one Dublin hotel has bought a large house for staff members.
Finding the right staff and retaining them is of course, a management responsibility and therefore the calibre of management in the sector is of critical importance. Compared with operational roles, hotel and restaurant management is a popular career choice, with a strong continuous pipeline of graduates emerging from the colleges. They join a coterie of management which has almost entirely taken the same route to its present position. Hotel managers graduate from hotel schools, are trained by other hotel managers and then work for hoteliers. It is an extremely condensed gene pool, essentially bred to apply traditional solutions to traditional issues. Rarely do high-performing managers from other sectors such as FMCG, retailing or manufacturing migrate into hospitality, and even more rarely do hotel and catering managers end up in senior positions in factories, retail chains or airlines. This in-breeding of hospitality managers has its merits, but it may also stifle the ability of the industry to solve issues such as recruitment and staff retention.
The arrival of investment companies in the hotel and restaurant sectors may encourage the hiring of managers with different experiences and varied skill-sets. Such managers will however need to also possess the communications skills at which many hospitality managers excel. Management skills associated with processes and systems may be a valuable addition to hospitality enterprises, but they must not be at the expense of inter-personal communications. Managers of hotel staff, food servers, and other service employees need to be able to manage both processes and humans. They need to know how to handle conflict, delegate orders, and communicate openly with both their team and customers.
While recruitment has been the subject of many industry studies, the key area of retention has received less attention. However the Hospitality Skills Oversight Group did look at the issue in 2017-18 and said that ‘The industry has not been progressive enough in developing programmes to aid career progression and pathways to promotion within the industry’.
One interesting initiative has been the Chef Apprenticeship scheme, which was promoted heavily, but failed to attract targeted numbers of either employers or employees. It did however provide food for thought as to the image of the industry as a source of careers and the willingness of employers to invest in their workforce.