When an Inspector calls... February 2018

As the fourth biggest employer in the UK, the hospitality industry should be heralded as a success story with people scrambling to work in hotels; but perceptions of anti-social hours, low pay and physical strain is putting people off. Deborah Heather, Director of Quality in Tourism considers how we can reform perceptions and drive employment across the board.

According to statistics from The British Hospitality Association – BHA - (soon to be UKHospitality after their merger with the Association of Licensed Multiple Retailers), our sector offers 3.2million directly employed jobs as well as supporting a further 2.8million jobs indirectly. This equates to £73bn of Gross Value Added (GVA) directly to the UK economy, and a further £87bn indirectly added. Add to this the fact that the industry has had the fastest growing GVA of any industry since the economic downturn in 2009, and we are a force to be reckoned with. Granted, these figures are from 2016, but since then the industry has only grown, not shrunk, so updated figures due to be published in 2018 for 2017 are only expected to be higher. Indeed the same report from the BHA highlights predictions from the Office of National Statistics, which forecast a further 518,000 jobs in the industry by 2021, and a further £22bn direct GVA being generated. Combine this with the report from PwC which highlights that an additional 19,000 rooms will be added across the UK during 2018, and the forecast for the industry looks fairly rosy.

Turning to those our businesses will employ however and the future is far less positive; particularly given Brexit and the reputational impacts this is already having. As the latest statistics released this month highlight, net migration from the EU was below 100,000 in 2017 for the first time since 2013, and the UK is becoming more reliant on non-EU migration to offset our impending labour shortages. In fact, a report by KPMG quantifies that the industry currently need 200,000 workers per year to offset staff turnover and support industry growth, and that this will worsen by a further 60,000 workers per year in the next five years. Currently, 43% of low level job roles within the sector are filled by EU Nationals, who also account for 12.3% of the entire UK hospitality workforce, and extrapolating a scenario where there is little or no EU migration could mean our industry faces a shortfall of 1million workers by 2029.

Also worth consideration is that that the hospitality sector globally comprises predominantly young people, with various statistical estimates of between 40% and 45% of the workforce aged between 15 and 24. Realistically, this means that the next major recruitment tranche will be from ‘Generation Z’ - those born between 1995 and 2009 – who are typified by an intense familiarity with and reliance on technology, a confident and hardworking demeanour, but an expectation to achieve happiness at work, a good work-life balance, and have the opportunity to advance quickly. This is at odds with the perception of the hospitality industry as an employer, which research shows is perceived as anti-social, physically demanding and low paid, with limited opportunity for progression; things which those of us in the industry know to be a very blinkered and short-sighted view. Add to this the fact that Generation Z specifically worry about dealing with people, health and safety in the workplace and pressure to perform, highlighting these as reasons not to pursue a career in hospitality, and our impending skills shortage is likely to be worsened by even less access to young people. So how do we change these perceptions, and what can be done to support hospitality as a career choice and retain our own workforce without such intense reliance on short-term migrant workers?

Changing the perceptions

We have to be honest as an industry that changing perceptions will not be instantaneous, nor will it be affected unless we can get cross-industry buy-in; however that does not mean all is lost on an individual hotel basis, and there is much that can be done to tackle the issues. Indeed reform is likely to be led by the actions of the individuals, so changes at a hotel level across the UK will increase the probability of longer-lasting, more robust perception changes for the industry as a whole. Interestingly, a workforce analysis by Dr Edmond Goh for the International Journal of Hospitality Management found that attitudes towards the hospitality industry were unstable and fluctuate depending on working conditions, employer expectations and the life stage of the employee, with an overall positive attitude towards the idea of working in the industry but concerns over the realities of the work including health and safety and difficult customers. Both of these are tackled at an individual level, and much needs to be done to ensure that the sum of all hotels are meeting and exceeding minimum standards, possibly through inspection reform and experiential assessments which place employee expectations at the same level as customer ones.  

The first reform for hoteliers is to embrace change, particularly those offered by technology and AI. The next generation of employees are typified by their familiarity with and reliance on technology-based solutions, and identifying how and what technology can be incorporated into the workplace can help to entice potential employees. Technology and AI have both been heralded as the harbingers of widespread guest personalisation, but it doesn’t have to stop with the guest. Good quality CRM, personalisation and AI can enhance the capabilities of the employee and help them to feel better equipped to deal with guests on an individual basis, alleviating the pressure to perform. Clever applications of tech include point of sale software which uses iBeacon technology to monitor guest footfall and present individual guest information to the reception staff as the guest approaches the desk, using their unique mobile signature to look up guest information. This instantaneous analysis by technology can be used to trigger important notes, reminders and personalised recommendations based on a guest’s previous behaviours and one of the cleverest I’ve seen also presented guest social media profile pictures to staff. We are the generation that may find this all a little creepy and stalker like, but nor are we the generation who has grown up with tech. These platforms can help create a seamless first-person experience for the guest, without any realisation that it is not the experience and capability of the staff member.

It is important to note that introduction of tech will do more for the guest in the short-term than for the issue of employment, but perception reform was never going to be an overnight phenomenon. Instead, it will be a gradual combination of multiple factors, including tackling the issue of preconceived barriers such as dealing with customers and the realities of the role. Hotels in particular need to work on their employer branding; so many roles are advertised with a simple statement of role and responsibilities, and a basic salary attributed, and there is limited connection between the bottom rung job role and their future career. Building reputations as exemplary employers and highlighting how and why employees have the opportunity to progress, plus the support and training they will receive along the way will help ensure that at an individual property level, employment should improve quickly and simply. Interestingly, Generation Y and Generation Z both have an interest in how company’s help to prevent emotional burnout in the workplace, and support employees if they do struggle, and these are strategies which many employers are unfamiliar with, yet alone advertising.

Then of course, it is all about engagement; while as an industry we need to do more to engage with potential employees and highlight the pros of working in the industry, this is also a role which can be taken on at an individual employer level too. Running open days for schools, students and graduates, participating in or organising careers fairs, gaining attention on social media; all of these highlight positive engagement with the future workforce, a trait which is much valued by those you seek to employ. Combine this with literature which goes beyond the specific job role and highlights the opportunities available with your business, your position as a diverse, multicultural workplace, your responsibility and commitments as an employer, and the opportunities that are open to them. The ACCOR Hotel Group is often heralded internationally for their employer branding, and their promotion of a ‘Peopleology’ training course which supports their employees to gain experience and confidence and outlines their commitment as an employer to their staff. As Richard Branson is regularly quoted “If you look after your staff, they’ll look after your customers; it’s as simple as that” and for hoteliers, this means the potential benefits and efforts go beyond the immediate recruitment of staff, to support your customers in the long run, and ultimately the success of your business.      

Tackling staff retention issues

As the population ages, our industry is facing a further problem, with the outflow of older workers or ‘boomers’ retiring and not being replaced by an inflow of younger workers. Add to this our reliance on a more transient, international workforce and our focus should not just be on changing perceptions at the recruitment stage, but also across the entire workforce, with a focus on staff retention. Hotels are often accused of failing to invest in their workforce, like somehow we have resigned ourselves to a transient employee base and therefore lack the impetus and motivation to commit to them in return. In reality, how many young people do you know who undertook a career in the discipline of their University degree, or who started a job simply because they ‘didn’t know what else to do’? This is where we as an industry have opportunity, to train, mentor and inspire these individuals away from their ‘summertime job’ and into their future career. Why is our industry any less of a viable choice for a long-term career, unless of course we fail to demonstrate the long-term reward of a career in hospitality?

Identifying and communicating key career path prospects, and facilitating opportunities for staff to better themselves and further their career should be done as standard. The amount of times our assessors speak to front of house staff who are only there for the summer, and who feel they have no opportunity beyond their current role in the bar or restaurant, and it is little wonder we have such a transient workforce. If we look back to Branson, we should be investing in our staff simply because they are our staff and ultimately our front-line for our guests, but we seem to lack the desire to train those who might not stay beyond a few months. Yet it is this very attitude which perpetuates the cycle, and I regularly see young people being fostered by an employer, later going on to be the great and the good from the industry, just because they were lucky enough to have an employer with a training-led approach.

Do it together

Don’t just work out how to do it alone; I know there is a risk that you invest in good staff only for them to be poached by someone up the road, so instead, join forces. Contrary to popular belief, your biggest competitor can also be your biggest ally and in the same way you can both profit from cross-referring business during peak season, you can do the same with staff. Set up a local consortium with your competitors, or join your local hospitality association, and create a cross-property training programme which allows your staff to gain experience in multiple establishments and learn from the very best. This will also help alleviate pressure by sharing the burden of delivering training and engaging with local schools and colleges and will do much to drive the industry forward as a whole.

Quality in Tourism has launched a new series of industry standards and assessments, focusing on guest experience rather than traditional facilities standards. If you have any comments on the article, please direct them to our team.

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