To say a lot has changed over the past year would be an understatement. The pandemic has ripped through the hospitality industry, bringing a relentless barrage of new challenges with each wave of restrictions and lockdowns. While not out of the white water yet, initial sales figures from those able to reopen indicate the predicted pent-up consumer demand is translating into sales. However, a familiar challenge is lurking in the depths: the workforce.

At the launch of CGA’s Business Leaders Survey in February 2020, 96% of those surveyed listed the rising cost of labour as a major challenge that they would face over the coming year. Little did we know what was coming. At the event, Brexit was also a major talking point, and the impact it would have on the availability of EU workers who made up 42% of the hospitality workforce at the time.

These concerns were soon eclipsed by a far greater threat. The Covid-19 pandemic has seen the hospitality workforce shrink by a staggering 28%, according to Fourth data, with 650,000 job losses recorded since March 2020 – a statistic that would be far greater if it wasn’t for the government’s job retention scheme. As we cautiously look ahead to a return to normality, the statistics reveal there has been a significant shift in the sector’s labour landscape.

When looking at the make-up of the hospitality workforce, our data reveals a large proportion of workers lost over the past year have been EU nationals, with numbers falling from 43.4% in Q1 2019, to 39.3% in Q1 2021. Furthermore, the steady churn of new workers from European countries has fallen, with new starters from the EU falling from 48.6% in Q1 2019, to just 34.9% in Q1 2021.

This is a particularly worrying trend, as the combination of a recruitment drive to attract and retain the best employees and a shrinking pool of workers will likely drive up the cost of labour across the market - particularly in skilled back of house roles, such as chefs. Our figures reveal the average hourly sector wage for those aged 23 and above only increased by 12p between March 2020 and March 2021, rising to £8.98; compared to a 39p increase over the same period the year prior; and 51p the year prior to that.

Against this backdrop, businesses are increasingly looking to harness the power of technology and identify ways to drive efficiencies. To try and do more, with less, and drive the bottom line. There is a fine balance to strike here, and with labour management, operators should be wary about spreading staff too thinly and impacting the guest experience. Operators need to ensure the guest experience is on the money, as consumers will vote with their feet if they feel it is lacking.

The gatekeepers of the guest experience are front-line staff. With a reduction in the churn of workers from the EU, it’s important to shed a light on the myriad benefits hospitality has to offer young British workers. Younger workers have been the most heavily impacted by the pandemic when it comes to jobs, our data revealing that those aged 16-22 currently make up less than a quarter (24%) of the overall hospitality workforce – down from one third in 2020. Tapping into this pool of workers and bestowing the benefits of the industry upon them for life skills and career progression presents an opportunity to plug the gap left by EU workers. However, the workforce challenge remains as prominent as ever, as the sector embarks on its recovery from what has been a terribly difficult year.