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April 23, 2023

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Staffing might not be quite as desperate as it was last summer, but a lack of skilled people both front-of-house and in the kitchen remains one of the industry’s principal headaches. According to new research from CGA by NIQ and hospitality tech company Fourth, confidence in recruitment across the sector remains low and around one in 11 roles (9%) are currently vacant and open for application. 

According to research commissioned by flexible recruitment platform Limber, 64% of hospitality employees couldn’t deliver the service they wanted due to being understaffed. And according to the same piece of research, the industry’s staffing challenge is creating a vicious circle with 43% of respondents saying that understaffing was making them look for work elsewhere.

A lack of experienced staff continues to constrain the industry, forcing operators to overhaul long-established working practices, pay staff more and completely rethink their hiring policies. It was against this backdrop that we gathered a group of restaurant and pub HR professionals to discuss best practice and how their respective businesses are navigating this unprecedented skills crisis.

The panel was made up of Sadie Lofthouse (director of culture and performance at Adnams); Brogan Mailey (people advisor at Turtle Bay); Laura Creasey (head of people at Laine Pub Company); Stacey Strachan (people partner at Pizza Pilgrims); Amanda Walden (head of people development at McMullen & Sons); Chelsea Zwetsloot (HR business partner at Wells & Co); and Beverley Payne (general manager at Hilton’s Conrad London St. James). 

The roundtable was sponsored by Limber, ​with its founder and CEO Chris Sanderson also joining the discussion. Here’s what was said.  

How bad is the staffing crisis now? 

Laura Creasey:​ Over summer pub managers were so difficult to find that we were forced to change completely the packages we were offering. We’ve filled those vaccines now so things are improving.
Amanda Walden:​ We’ve got 83 sites at McMullen & Sons so we have a good internal pipeline that’s been years in the making. Most of our GM positions are filled internally with people stepping up. It’s harder with senior chefs because it takes so much longer to train people up. As such there is a bit of a bun fight for talent and some very high salaries. While it’s good that salaries get raised in hospitality at the lower levels, some senior salaries are ridiculous. But employers are desperate.
Brogan Mailey:​ We had a ‘just get anyone in’ approach post-Covid. The churn was so fast it felt like we were recruiting constantly. Recruitment is more stable now but we still struggle with chefs in some areas, not least London.
Beverley Payne:​ We’re finding that there are now a lot of younger people for entry-level jobs. The problem is finding people with significant experience for more senior roles.
Amanda Walden:​ I hate to say it but economic downturn and the cost-of-living crisis is actually good for hospitality recruitment. People need extra money and hospitality is often flexible enough to be a viable second job. 

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What is the cause of this unprecedented squeeze on staff?​ 

Amanda Walden:​ The pandemic is the obvious one. Lots of people left to do other things and didn’t come back. Brexit is also a major factor. 
Beverley Payne:​ It’s the flexibility of the recruitment pot. This problem is global. We’re fishing in ponds we would not have dreamt of fishing in before.

How have senior HR roles in hospitality changed over the past few years? 

Beverley Payne:​ I’m a GM but I feel like I have moved into HR over the past few years. 
Laura Creasey:​ We didn’t even have a people department until after the pandemic, that’s how much it has changed. 
Beverley Payne:​ Prior to the pandemic and the staffing crisis that it triggered I spent 30% of my time with my staff and 70% with guests. That’s now flipped. The team are needy. The last 18 months have been an absolute slog.
Brogan Mailey:​ We now do quite a lot of international sponsorships through an agency. We bring in chefs to work at Turtle Bay from both the Caribbean and India. 

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How do your teams cope on understaffed shifts? 

Laura Creasey:​ We always have a simpler back-up menu that requires fewer skills that we can offer if we are understaffed in the kitchen. 
Chelsea Zwetsloot:​ We’ve got a high churn of head chefs. To cope with that we’ve hired roving chefs that can go where they are needed. 
Sadie Lofthouse:​ We have been forced to close kitchens a few times. We limit numbers if necessary too. We would rather serve 60 people well than 120 people badly. 
Beverley Payne:​ Table management is key because it looks after the staff you do have on that shift. 
Laura Creasey:​ We’ve changed the menu size and also made adjustments to make it more manageable for people that are new to the kitchen. 
Amanda Walden:​ We’ve used order and pay at some sites but it usually drives sales rather than allowing our pubs to run with fewer staff. 

Can the hospitality industry really offer flexible working hours? 

Beverley Payne:​ Hospitality is one of the most flexible industries there is. In fact, it’s probably more flexible than retail.
Sadie Lofthouse:​ We’ve seen a real upsurge in people wanting to work for us later in life. Our last four hires have all been over 55, including an ex-head teacher and the manager of a recruitment business. They are all great people, but we have had to be quite flexible in terms of the hours they do.
Chris Sanderson:​ A recent piece of research we conducted showed that 60% of people don’t view the hospitality industry as being flexible. The challenge is that if you offer full flexibility to everybody, you’ll find it difficult to staff weekend shifts. We have looked to combat this by suggesting that operators offer two paths to employees: a core path that is all about promotion and training that offers less flexibility alongside a path for more casual workers that is completely flexible. It’s working well.
Amanda Walden:​ Our general managers that have grasped the need to be more flexible with rotas are doing brilliantly. They have working mums that just do school hours and younger people that just want to work Friday and Saturday nights because it’s good fun. The managers that are in a less flexible, pre-pandemic mindset aren’t having nearly such a good time with staffing.
Chris Sanderson:​ Our view on the world is very flexible and very liquid. Most businesses we work with have tried some sort of staff sharing scheme. I’m interested to know how it has gone when people have experimented with it.
Sadie Lofthouse:​ We have very few sites that are close enough to do it. But in the cases where venues are close enough we have always done it. We have some people that are up for working across different sites and others that for whatever reason aren’t so keen.
Chelsea Zwetsloot:​ The issue we have is that we have lots of different concepts across our estate of pubs. The skills required to work in some of our more high-end concepts are very different to that of a simple locals pub.
Stacey Strachan:​ Some of our team work in different restaurants regularly. But if there’s a need in a particular restaurant that manager can flag that shift on our rota tool so anyone that is off that day and wants that extra shift can pick it up. It helps that all our restaurants serve the same menu. 

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How do businesses ensure the labour they do have is being used as efficiently as possible?

Amanda Walden:​ Most businesses use a labour scheduling tool, which works on either covers or sales per half an hour period and how many people you need to do that based on metrics. 
Chris Sanderson:​ Does anyone use auto-scheduling?
Sadie Lofthouse:​ We’ve got it but we don’t use it. There’s a layer of knowledge that AI lacks that needs to be layered over data on sales and shift times, such as knowing which team members work well together and who can handle a busy shift on their own.
Chris Sanderson:​ Auto-scheduling tends to increase shift swapping. That makes it much less useful, because if you get lots of swaps you end up having to manually rota anyway .

What is retention like at the moment? 

Chris Sanderson:​ Attraction is a challenge but retention is probably even more of a challenge. There’s a lack of loyalty, especially at the lower end of the market. A lot of the operators we are working with are really struggling for casual staff. Churn rates are very high. There are a lot of people that want that sort of work, but it’s very difficult to keep hold of them. 
Sadie Lofthouse:​ We’d like our churn rate to be higher for basic front-of-house roles because we took on some people this summer that historically we probably would not have considered before. It would be nice if at least some of them could move on. 
Beverley Payne:​ We have the same issue. We recruited some people last year that I can’t wait to be rid of. But needs must. We did what we had to do. 
Sadie Lofthouse:​ Retention is most challenging in kitchens. When someone leaves and you see the salary they have been offered and the menu prices of where they are going to you think ‘that’s not sustainable’. We’ve seen a fair few people that have left come back, that’s something we always make a big song and dance about. 
Sadie Lofthouse:​ In most of our exit interviews people say they are leaving because they are fed up working weekends. But that’s something we can’t change. 
Chris Sanderson:​ If everybody wanted to be a career-lifer in hospitality it would not work. You want to know who those people are and nurture them, but you also need a lot of people who will work for a couple of years and then leave. 

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What are you doing to make the hospitality industry a more attractive place to work?  

Beverley Payne:​ As a company we have embraced the post-pandemic landscape. We pay more and we pay overtime even to salaried team members. Service charge pots are pretty good too, the average supervisor gets something like £600 a month. We also have good facilities for our staff at the hotel and Hilton offers some great perks. 
Chelsea Zwetsloot:​ Succession planning is important. We mapped out the entire company which gave people clarity about what they were working towards. We’ve had good feedback. 
Beverley Payne:​ We do thank you payments, team drinks and one-off experience for people that have had to work harder than they should have. 
Laura Creasey:​ We’ve started doing Laine Socials once a fortnight, which is a free bar for anyone that works in the company from the kitchen right through to head office. It also helps with staff sharing because it introduces different teams to one another.  

To read Limber’s report on flexible working trends head here.

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