Labour pains: How can the hospitality industry tackle the recruitment challenge?

By Joe Lutrario

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Young people, Hospitality industry, Restaurant, London

Front-of-house champion: Fred Sirieix at Mayfair's Galvin at Windows
Front-of-house champion: Fred Sirieix at Mayfair's Galvin at Windows
The rapid expansion of UK restaurant chains, combined with a rise in standards has created a widening skills gap. Restaurant magazine asks, 'how can the hospitality industry tackle the recruitment challenge'.

Earlier this year Ed’s Easy Diner received 1,700 job applications for its new restaurant in Tyne and Wear’s Newcastle Gateshead development.

Aided by industry charity Springboard, the fast-expanding US diner group set its sights firmly on Generation Y with a social media-driven campaign that shepherded applicants to a branch-specific recruitment portal.

This extraordinary number of candidates may, in part, reflect the high unemployment rates in the north-east. But it is also a result of Ed’s digital-savvy approach and willingness to ‘recruit raw’ for servers, drinks makers, grill cooks and kitchen porters – or, as its experienced managing director Andrew Guy terms it, “to hire smiles”.

“Sometimes we could fill the positions three times over. I’m not fazed by recruitment at all. Nobody is ever going to convince me that there aren’t a lot of great young people out there who just want to get a foot on the ladder,” says Guy, who has enjoyed similar levels of interest for recent openings in Cardiff and Gloucester.

Such an approach vastly simplifies staffing for the 33-strong chain: the HR team sifts through the applications for evidence of a bit of get-up-and-go and personality, then holds an open day for 60 to 70 people before conducting one-on-one interviews to end up with about 30 entry-level staff.

Ed’s relatively straightforward processes contrast sharply with those of independents and groups with more complex service standards and menus, who will likely look at Guy’s recruitment system with a wistful ‘if only it were so simple for us’ sigh. Securing pre-trained and experienced talent has never been tougher. Restaurants and pubs that rely on premium-level staff are facing an unprecedented skills shortage, and most restaurateurs will tell you that attracting and retaining good people – both in the kitchen and out front – remains their most persistent headache.

“Not having access to the best people is our number-one concern as an expanding business. Preserving the reputation of the existing restaurants is paramount and that hinges almost entirely on having the right staff,” says Xavier Rousset, co-owner of Michelin-starred restaurant Texture and mini-chain 28°-50°, both in London.

Recruitment agencies are feeling the pinch too. Rory Laffan’s London-based Bee Recruitment specialises in fast-expanding quality restaurant groups and has never been busier, with the likes of Côte, Byron and Bill’s growing at break-neck speed. “There was still a shortage throughout the recession, it never really quietened down in our sector. It’s not so much that there is a shortage of applicants, but employers are specific about what they want. The pace never lets up here,” he says. 

Broad rise in standards


A number of factors are conspiring against the industry’s recruitment efforts, and principal among them is its success. The hospitality industry is expected to grow by almost 2 per cent this year against a backdrop of stagnant economic growth in nearly every other sector. As many as 660,000 new hospitality positions will need to be filled by 2020 – more than the current population of Manchester.

This impressive on-going growth has been driven by a broad rise in standards across the eating-out arena. But this rise in quality is also creating a skills gap. Increasingly, operators need cooks that can create food from scratch as opposed to microwave jockeys. Multi-site merchants also now require a higher calibre of manager to run their restaurants with significant improvements in service standards.

The need to pull in higher-calibre staff is driving up salaries in some quarters. Our data suggests cooks at demi chef de partie level and above and senior front-of-house personnel are getting paid as much as 10 per cent more than last year as both indies and groups slog it out for the best staff. Unsurprisingly, the competition is particularly intense in London, but regional restaurants are also struggling to fill positions – especially those in remote areas.

“The skills shortage is fuelled by a growing industry and some fundamental structural shifts; for example, a huge number of pubs now serve food,” says Brian Wisdom, chief executive of People 1st, which works with the industry to drive up standards and nurture talent. “Since 2008 the number of chefs working in pubs has increased by 25 per cent. Supply from further education colleges hasn’t increased, so we’re left with a shortage of qualified staff in both the pub and restaurant sectors.”

Foreign labour challenge

A marked reduction in the availability of foreign labour is also providing HR departments and recruitment agencies with a further challenge.

The booming economy Down Under has been particularly problematic for top-end London kitchens, which traditionally rely heavily on a proportion of highly-skilled Australian chefs.

“The shortfall is being felt most strongly at chef de partie level. It’s a big blow for us and quality London restaurants – the education process for chefs in Oz is second to none,” says Carl Maskell, director at Just Chefs, which specialises in staffing Michelin-level restaurants and five-star hotels.

Fewer Eastern Europeans are entering the UK labour market for similar reasons, but it remains unclear what will happen when Bulgarians and Romanians gain the right to live and work in Britain next year. The well-reported squeeze on importing skilled non-EU chefs to create the dishes of their homeland is also causing woe across the ethnic restaurant sector.

“The sector’s reliance on overseas and migrant labour is unhelpful and contributing to high staff turnover,” says Anne Pierce, CEO of Springboard, which has a remit to help young people and the unemployed achieve their potential in the industry.

“We need to attract more UK people into the business, but the sector has never focused on how it’s going to increase its appeal. Restaurant groups don’t tend to go into schools or colleges; they don’t go to university recruitment fairs.”

Springboard’s research suggests that young people’s perception of the hospitality trade is more positive than ever. More than 80 per cent of young people don’t know what they want to do when they leave school and 52 per cent would positively consider a career in hospitality, twice as many as when Springboard last carried out the research back in 2005. Pierce puts this encouraging shift in attitude down to a number of factors, including youngsters enjoying better standards as diners and the proliferation of food-related TV.

Fred Sirieix – the GM of Galvin at Windows in Mayfair, London – has made a notable contribution to the perception of the front-of-house profession. Frustrated that it was viewed with much less respect in the UK than in his native France, Sirieix has campaigned to boost the standing of his trade by spearheading a number of initiatives, including National Waiters Day – run in conjunction with Springboard – as well as appearing on BBC series Michel Roux’s Service. The TV show successfully turned the spotlight on waiters and sommeliers as the unsung heroes of the restaurant world.

Sector skills campaign

Springboard recently teamed up with a number of operators to launch a sector skills campaign for restaurants. A diverse range of groups have signed up including Le Gavroche in Mayfair, London, Soho House Group and pub giant Mitchells & Butlers. The initiative sees Springboard engage with young people via numerous channels and communicate the benefits that a career in the sector can offer.

Additionally, the organisation helps match up restaurant groups with unemployed young people. Most of Springboard’s work is concerned with entry-level roles, but the industry also needs to work much harder to attract graduates onto the managerial path.

“The industry tends to focus on entry-level jobs in terms of its PR, but it does mean that a huge swathe of executive opportunities are unseen – the very thing that would attract ambitious people into the industry,” says Wisdom, who is working on various initiatives at People 1st to drive more graduates into the sector, as well as help those that join at entry level climb the ranks.

High flyers are an integral part of the recruitment solution, because good branch managers are instrumental in reducing staff churn. Unfortunately, restaurants struggle to attract ambitious graduates into senior roles. That said, a fair few do end up in management ‘accidentally’ by taking entry-level roles as a stopgap and catching the restaurant bug.

Chefs aside, most high-profile restaurateurs didn’t enter the restaurant world by way of a planned route and have barely any formal training or qualifications. One of the most important qualities of the sector is that there are few barriers to entry, and motivated, intelligent people can move swiftly through the ranks. Restaurant history is littered with examples of those that have switched careers and gone on to achieve great things, from law-school graduate turned successful US restaurateur Danny Meyer to short-lived management consultant and Byron founder Tom Byng and Polpo’s Russell Norman, a former drama teacher. 

Hear Danny Meyer talk about why working in the hospitality industry is something to be proud of:

Attracting graduates

It’s never too late, but restaurants could certainly put more effort into recruiting graduate talent. Many industries have great success by consistently targeting those leaving higher education at recruitment fairs, for example – but the industry is also at a severe disadvantage because of the comparatively weak starting salaries on offer.

The Higher Education Statistics Agency ranks occupations by initial salaries and this data is often drawn upon when colleges and universities offer career advice. “The numbers that university vice chancellors and other education professionals are working with are most unhelpful,” says Wisdom.

“The methodology used is poor because it doesn’t take into account the very quick progression that good people enjoy in the hospitality industry. Within a few years good people are usually running a business or businesses, turning over millions and drawing an excellent salary.”

Pizza Express is soon to launch a graduate recruitment drive.

Some parts of the wider hospitality family are better than others at attracting graduates, most notably larger hotel groups and contract catering companies. However, some restaurant groups are getting in on the act with Pizza Express soon to launch its own graduate recruitment drive.

The Gondola-owned chain will target second year university students for internships with a view to employing them straight after university.

“Graduates rarely consider a career in hospitality because it’s often seen as one of the less ‘professional’ industries – we’re hoping our internships will change that,” says Pizza Express HR director Amanda Underwood. 

“It’s a great opportunity for the group to find fantastic people.”

Underwood believes that the current state of the wider jobs market should make it easier for group operators to pick up talent typically lost to other industries. “There are some good candidates leaving higher education that are struggling to find work – it’s an opportunity for the sector,” she says.

But restaurant owners should act fast. As the economy improves competition for people will intensify, particularly as the construction and financial services sectors start to pick up pace.

“There will be a talent war – it will be even trickier to attract bright graduates,” says Wisdom, who believes that the sector’s only hope to plug the skills gap is to focus on in-house training schemes. More and more operators are therefore likely to follow the Ed’s Easy Diner route and recruit raw.

That means simplifying and standardising processes in both front and back-of-house, but that doesn’t necessarily involve a dip in quality, as a new breed of specialised operator is proving.

With its ultra-tight three-dish menu, hugely successful London restaurant group Burger & Lobster is largely able to sidestep recruitment challenges by taking raw recruiting to new levels of efficiency. When director David Strauss opened a branch in Soho last year he hired a team of 23 people after placing an ad on free classified site Gumtree. Five days later his staff were serving a completely packed restaurant and, amazingly, 20 of the original 23 are still with the company.

“We’ve never had a disastrous service, but the menu is very simple so the servers have a decent chance of getting it right. We look for people that are fun and have a good attitude,” says Strauss.

Things are far trickier for those with more complicated menus, particularly anyone cooking at fine-dining level where the skills shortage is felt most acutely. Many head chefs lay the blame for this lack of trained talent at the door of catering colleges, although most would agree that standards are improving. As part of the on-going shake-up of catering vocational qualifications, more emphasis has been placed on practical skills, and the NVQ – which many chefs joke stands for ‘Not Very Qualified’ – has largely been replaced by the Professional Cookery Diploma.

Despite this progress, senior chefs generally find it easier to get behind well-run apprenticeship schemes: young chefs leaving apprenticeships might have similar qualifications to those leaving college-based courses, but tend to come away with  a more rounded skill set and are better equipped to withstand the rigours of the professional kitchen.

“In my experience catering college students simply can’t hack it in a tough, professional kitchen environment – it’s too much of a shock after college,” says Jake Saul Watkins, chef-patron at Michelin-starred JSW in Petersfield, Hampshire.

“As a business owner, it’s very difficult to justify paying a commis fresh out of catering college £15,000 per year when you can get a clued-up chef de partie for 25 per cent to 40 per cent more, who will be able to do three times as much work.”

Role of apprenticeships

Saul Watkins has teamed up with an off-site training provider to launch an apprenticeship scheme for front and back-of-house roles. “We do still have some failures because there are young kids who like the idea of working in a Michelin star place, but can’t actually hack it – it’s tough. But we also have some great success stories.”

At as little as £2.68 an hour, apprentices are a cheap form of labour, but employers need to take into account the time they must put aside to train them. As the current scheme stands, those that take on apprenticeships will receive a £1,500 grant after 11 weeks for each apprentice they hire.

Timescales are flexible and vary, but most apprenticeships take between one and two years to complete, depending on the qualification and the ability of the candidate.

“Apprentices are only allowed to work 40 hours a week, which works out as about £450 per month for most of our lot, which as I always tell them is £450 a month more than they’d get if they were at college,” says Saul Watkins. “It’s a no-brainer really. My guys get the same qualifications here in 18 months as they do in three years of college.”

But David Cameron’s ‘toughening up’ of apprenticeships is likely to be bad news for most of the hospitality sector. Future apprentices will need to demonstrate academic competence through more rigorous assessments, English and maths in particular, and at least 20 per cent of an apprentice’s time will need to be spent ‘off the job’ in a classroom or comparable theoretical learning environment. The latter change will be particularly cumbersome for smaller employers that can’t spare the resources to tutor apprentices.

Springboard CEO Pierce says she welcomes the Government’s recent focus on apprenticeships, but is worried the changes are too prescriptive.

“Qualifications need to be robust and worth something at the end of the process, but we need to trust those delivering them and be as flexible as possible,” she says. “Theory is important, but a good trainer should be able to deliver the background while teaching the practical skills.”

Some reform elements are more positive, however. A scale of pass, merit and distinction will go some way to addressing vocational courses’ unhelpful ‘no fail’ reputation and put apprenticeships on par with other qualifications.

In addition, big business is being encouraged to get behind apprenticeships and is being given the freedom to create highly specialised schemes.

National pub group Greene King recently rolled out a major apprenticeship scheme over both its managed and tenanted businesses by way of a link-up with Charnwood Training. “The scheme brings huge benefits to our pubs, as well as creating much-needed jobs for young people.

Apprenticeships result in better trained and more motivated staff, which as every employer knows is the bread and butter of a great business,” says Simon Longbottom, managing director for Greene King Pub Partners. The scheme has been a huge success for the group. Since 2011, more than 3,000 people have completed – or are in the process of completing – an apprenticeship, with some 70 per cent gaining promotions and staying on at the group.

Staff retention in London

Finding, or indeed creating, motivated and highly skilled staff might be tricky, but holding on to them is proving even tougher – and nowhere more so than in the capital. Ratnesh Bagdai, a partner in successful London groups Restaurants Etc and Brindisa, says young chefs’ new-found tendency to switch employers is putting huge strain on HR departments across London.

“Front-of-house has always been transient, but we’ve now got a culture where chefs come and go and we need to get used to it,” he says. “Ten years ago chefs were much more likely to stay in the same role for three years and attempt to work their way up the ladder. Sideways moves are now more common, and chefs can often get more money for the same role as demand is so high.”

The capital’s frenetic calendar of new openings is a major factor, but so too is the increasing sophistication and diversity of the restaurant scene. Chefs are now more likely to move around to gain experience in a wide range of culinary disciplines and styles of restaurant. The major cultural crossover in top-level cuisine is also behind this change: for example, skills gained in a Japanese restaurant would now have relevance in a high-end French restaurant.

Younger chefs’ tendency to chop and change is putting pressure on employers who need to invest more in both staff retention and recruitment, but it also means chefs are learning broader skill sets.

By a similar token, it might be a tough recruitment market, but at least the skills gap is symptomatic of an industry in comparatively good fettle.

Proactivity will be key in addressing the staff shortage. The figure of 660,000 is a daunting one, but from big business rolling out effective training schemes to single-site restaurateurs taking on an apprentice, everybody can do something to address the squeeze on quality staff.

Search for the latest jobs with BigHospitality jobs.

Related news

Show more

1 comment


Posted by Philip Arlington,

The economy of Australia isn't booming any more, though it remains more prosperous than the UK and most of Europe. Any recent reduction in the supply of Australian chefs is more likely caused by the government making it harder for them to work in the UK so it can meet its promise to reduce net immigration, since it is unable to restrict immigration from EU countries. This is certainly the case in the health sector.

Report abuse


Follow us

Hospitality Guides

View more

Featured Suppliers

All suppliers