The industry continues to face recruitment issues as both uncertainty around reopening and worker displacement persist, Will Beckett, founder & CEO of Hawksmoor told MCA’s The Conversation audience. 

“Everybody knows in our industry that in recent weeks recruitment has been quite difficult,” he said. “Whether that’s been a structural issue caused by reverse migration – people leaving cities, leaving the industry – or whether it’s just difficult because everybody is recruiting at the same time and it’s just hard to match employees with jobs at the right level of expertise.”

Beckett said the team at Hawksmoor realised a few weeks ago that they were heading for a sustained period of recruitment, with its sites reopening for indoor dining.

“We found we had some people that were on furlough but had drifted – it’s hard to blame them for that,” he said. “So we had to recruit and we also thought about 21 June when we’ll start opening more and more services and hopefully we’ll be even busier.”

Beckett also highlighted natural turnover within the industry as well as plans to open Hawksmoor New York and the usual recruitment drive in the build-up to Christmas. “We’re going to be constantly recruiting,” he said.

Addressing the ‘refer a friend’ initiative it has implemented to boost recruitment – something picked up by The Times last weekend, he said the thought process behind the scheme was that word of mouth was the most powerful tool when it comes to finding new people with the right fit.

“You introduce one friend, they pass their month’s probation and we give you £200. A second friend, £300 and a fourth friend, £400. Fourth, and any beyond that, £500. So, if you brought five people to the company, you could earn almost £2,000,” he explained.

“If we had to choose whether we wanted to give our money to recruitment agents/job boards or to our own staff who have been on furlough or not been able to earn what they thought they would do, it wasn’t a difficult choice for us.”

Although there are still some jobs that Hawksmoor is looking to recruit for, by and large “it has worked”, he said of the scheme.

Martin raised the point that while there are a number of hospitality businesses that feature in the latest Best Places to Work list, the sector is not always seen as an optimal employer in terms of a good work/life balance for employee and could be part of the battle in terms of recruitment.

Asked whether the sector could do more to emphasise its strengths, and whether it should reassess the terms and conditions it offers people, Beckett said “I think the answer has to be yes”. “I think we should be doing more and thinking about what are progressive changes in employment and how to be better,” said Beckett.

He said the industry could be guilty of kidding itself a bit about how great it is, as the majority of workers are waiters, chef, bar tenders or receptionists, for example, rather than those that have worked their way up to the boardroom. “I think we do need to be better at giving those people meaningful work,” he added.

The problem of displacement

Beckett’s fellow panellists, Kate Nicholls, CEO of UKHospitality and Roger Wade, founder & CEO of Boxpark, said displaced workforces were a big issue.

“The elephant in the room is this is the repercussions of Brexit,” said Wade. “We have lost a lot of hospitality staff just because there are a lot of people that don’t feel welcome back in Britain again. So unfortunately, we are struggling for high quality staff – it’s the same for everyone.”

Nicholls outlined UKHospitality’s latest survey, which shows that 80% of hospitality businesses have vacancies and are trying to recruit. Though she also pointed out that the scale varies throughout the country.

She said there are two distinct issues: “People are finding it a challenge when they are getting people back from furlough – and just because people have furloughed staff, it doesn’t mean they are coming back in full. That’s one of the shocks people are finding, which is exacerbating the recruitment issue.” She said that as the whole of the industry and the rest of the economy stands up at once, it has created a short-term crunch on the labour market where everybody has vacancies.

“There is an issue, which is particularly acute in London. 85% of hospitality workers are coming back from furlough – 15% aren’t,” explained Nicholls.

She said concerns were largely around confidence. “Until the government gives that certainty around reopening, it’s difficult to know with any confidence what hours you can give people, what capacity you’re going to be operating at and people are having to take a risk on a sector that they think might be closed down again,” she added. “The government needs to inject that confidence.”

The second distinct issue, she said, is that many people are in the wrong place at the wrong time, pointing to both EU and foreign workers that went home during the crisis and have decided to stay at home or are stuck due to travel restrictions.

“You’ve also got UK workers in the wrong place at the wrong time – students not in their university towns, also a lot of people who went home to stay with mum and dad and are therefore not in London,” she explained, adding that there will also be short-term problems caused by disruption to hospitality education programmes.

Nicholls said UKHospitality is doing three things to lobby the government, including asking for certainty around reopening, calling for some amendments around furlough to help with the uncertainty factor, and also asking the government to revisit the immigration system.

“In Australia, where they have got similar short-term crunches on the labour market has introduced a coronavirus recovery visa to allow temporary permissions outside of their points based system for those sectors of the economy that are most critical to recovery, because they’ve lost most of their hospitality and tourism workers as well,” she said.