The UK hospitality industry could be facing a skills crisis as government introduces new immigration rules post-Brexit, reports Liz Cooley
The foodservice and hospitality industry expressed outrage at the immigration plans, introduced by government on 18 February following the UK’s exit from the European Union.
The new points-based system classes the majority of foodservice and hospitality roles as either low-skilled or unskilled, which means that immigrants applying for jobs in these professions will not be eligible for visas.
“We need to shift the focus of our economy away from a reliance on cheap labour from Europe,” said the Home Office in a policy statement suggesting that some employers have been relying on the UK’s immigration system as an alternative to investment in staff retention and training.
Lack of understanding
But ruling out a temporary, low-skilled route for migration would be disastrous for the hospitality sector and the British people, according to Kate Nicholls, the CEO of Hospitality UK.
“Hospitality is already facing an acute labour shortage, despite investing significantly in skills, training and increasing apprenticeships for the domestic workforce” she says. “We are facing record low levels of unemployment, a dip in young people entering the labour market and have the highest vacancy levels of any sector.”
Matthew Merritt-Harrison, managing partner of Merritt-Harrison Catering Consultancy and the chair of FCSI UK & Ireland, agrees and says the move demonstrates a lack of understanding of how the labour and staffing market works within the hospitality industry.
“It will put huge pressure on hospitality employers, including public sector employers, and will result in skillset shortages over the coming years. I think it’s a very, very disappointing decision – a political decision that’s been made for ideological reasons when actually it’s not necessarily what’s right for the industry,” he says.
Mind the gap
Government says it recognises that the proposals represent significant change for employers in the UK and has promised to deliver a comprehensive programme of communication and engagement in the coming months. But it has put significant emphasis on businesses training more British workers to fill vacancies.
Approximately 20% of available working age people in the UK are inactive and could be encouraged into work, according to home secretary Priti Patel.
“Restaurant owners who need to hire new staff might also want to look at different talent pools,” says Jurgen Ketel, managing director of Givex EMEA, which provides gift card, loyalty programme and analytics solutions for the restaurant, retail and QSR industries.
The most important skills that restaurant owners look for when hiring staff, according to a survey by the company, are good communication skills (56%), being a team player (52%) and customer service skills (48%).
“With that in mind, someone might not need hospitality experience – perhaps those with a sports background might be good communicators and team players, for example,” says Ketel.
However, the industry has long struggled to attract enough workers to meet demand.
“The government says that we will have to train people within the UK to fill this gap. I would love to find that pool of people who want to be trained and who want to work in the service industry at these levels, because that is not something that has been prevalent in the past,” says Merritt-Harrison.
“A lot of hospitality industry employers are already hiring people with learning difficulties and from disadvantaged backgrounds. But it is about finding people of the calibre with the skillset for service delivery that customers expect and in the last few years there has been an influx of those people from other European countries which has filled a resource and skills gap. If you just take those people away there will be basically a crisis within the UK hospitality industry.”
One of the key barriers to recruitment is that hospitality and foodservice roles are not seen as aspirational professions.
“Service industries in the UK are not seen as careers in the way they are in other continental countries. If you’re a waiter in France it’s regarded as a very professional position and that’s not always the case in the UK,” explains Merritt-Harrison.
“Service industries need to be seen as a career path of choice, on an equal par with engineering or accountancy. It needs a change of mindset to understand that hospitality accounts for 10% of the whole UK economy and is critically important to the UK.”
According to a House of Commons report the Settlement Scheme for EU citizens, which opened in March 2019, has received 3.1 million applications from European workers already living and working in the UK.
The government says this will provide employers with flexibility to meet labour market demands but Merritt-Harrison recommends that businesses start planning now for the skills shortages likely to be faced in both the medium and long term, by recruiting, developing and retaining their workforce.