Opinion: How the pandemic will affect the labor shortage (and how to deal with it)

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For restaurant industry to thrive in a post pandemic world, it will have to address the staff shortage problem, says Marius Zürcher

For years the hospitality industries in markets such as the UK, the Netherlands, Germany, France, Japan, Ireland and the US had to grapple with severe staff shortages, which has hampered the growth potential of these industries (as well as of their respective countries, all of which are economies that increasingly rely on service industries for growth) and directly lead to the closure of many businesses.

It is tempting to think that the pandemic-induced industry contraction will solve this problem, as there will be fewer businesses competing for staff.

It is my feeling however that that is wishful thinking. Not only will the hospitality industry and therefore the demand for staff eventually (in my estimation sooner rather than later) rebound and reach pre-pandemic levels, but staff shortages might even be more acute, as many members of the pre-pandemic hospitality workforce will have moved on to other industries such as healthcare, while many newcomers to the workforce – spooked by the pandemic and experts predicting more of the same to come – will be less interested in working in an industry that turned out to be largely incompatible with the reality of a pandemic.

Now more than ever it is therefore time to look at what the hospitality industry as well as individual businesses can do to solve the staff shortage problem.

Optimisation and automation

Broadly speaking, there are two ways to do address the problem. One of them is to reduce the number of staff actually required. The most obvious way to do this is to optimise the business (processes, interior design and more) in such a way as to reduce to amount of people required to run the operational part of the business.

A more advanced, but increasingly realistic and relevant way is automation (which I wrote about in last month’s article about trends that will shape the industry). Not only does automation (i.e. the replacement of humans with robots and artificial intelligence) make a restaurant more pandemic-friendly, but it also lessens the number of staff a restaurant needs to operate.

Given the speed at which advancements in the fields of robotics and AI are occurring, automation will therefore soon be one of the most obvious ways to address the staff shortage problem in the hospitality industry. When deciding to make use of automation however, hospitality businesses need to keep in mind that reducing the amount of human interaction too much will turn off customers, meaning a balance needs to be found for automation to be a viable solution.

Changing the workplace climate

The other, equally (if not more) important way to address the staff shortage problem is to tackle what I believe to be the number reason why seemingly fewer and fewer people want to work in the hospitality industry: the workplace climate. In too many businesses overall and kitchens in particular, an aggressive, borderline abusive tone is still all too prevalent. Larger societal problems, among them racism and sexism, often seem to flourish in the hospitality industry. So does precarious work. All of this only increases stress and anxiety in an industry already plagued by it due to the nature of the jobs, leading to not just higher turnover rates, but also a decreasing supply of newcomers.

There are tools that can be used to get out of this situation (some of which I have addressed in previous articles about racism and sexism in the hospitality industry), including training, clear communication and strict enforcement of rules and adapted hiring policies. None of them will be enough however without some serious, industry-wide soul-searching. Luckily, this seems to be increasingly taking place [1].

If the restaurant industry wants to once again thrive in a post pandemic world, it will have to address the staff shortage problem. A combination of automation and improved working conditions will go a long way in doing so. Both however will require a lot of effort and finesse.

Let’s hope the industry is up to the task.

Marius Zürcher 


About the author:

The co-owner & founder of start-up 1520 in Apeldoorn, Netherlands, Marius Zürcher was a participant at FCSI’s ‘Millennials’ focused roundtable at INTERGASTRA 2018.