A case for national 'service': tackling the staff shortage

By Alex Rushmer

- Last updated on GMT

A case for national 'service': tackling the staff shortage

Related tags: Chef, Recruitment, Restaurant, Hospitality

How can the industry tackle the growing staff shortage? Chef Alex Rushmer has a radical solution.

The hospitality industry is heading towards a crisis. Somewhere in front of us is a cliff face. At the moment, it is impossible to know how far away it is, but the speed at which we are racing towards it is increasing with every passing week. The warning signs and signals have been appearing for a while.

Put two industry professionals in the same room for more than a couple of minutes and the same topics will inevitably rear their heads: staff shortages; rent and rate hikes; increasing food costs; customer reviews, no-shows; recruitment issues; butter prices; poor training; mental health; VAT; unhelpful banks. In fact, there are several chefs I know who would probably manage to have these conversations even if they were sitting by themselves in a darkened room.

As we move ever closer to the grim reality of a ‘no-deal Brexit’, the picture looks even bleaker. I’ll happily state my position from the outset: I voted to remain in the European Union. My belief is that, in balance, the institution has had an overwhelmingly positive impact on the world.

During my own career I have had the pleasure of working with people from Romania, Spain, Bulgaria, Poland, Italy and France, to name but a few. And judging by the facts and figures, I’m not alone in this. At present, EU nationals make up almost a quarter of the industry’s workforce. Up to 25% of chefs, and a staggering 75% of waiting staff are from Europe. In London and the south-east, these numbers are even higher.

Mark Twain once wrote that ‘travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness,’ and I’m of the opinion that working in this wonderful industry has much the same effect. I adore the fact it has always been concerned only with how hard you work, and not your place of birth. It is democratic, non-judgmental and deeply accepting.

Away from the personal and emotive aspects of the debate, it seems as if Brexit – and especially  a hard Brexit – is likely to have a catastrophic impact on our industry. In 2017, the British Hospitality Association (BHA) commissioned KPMG to conduct a report into the potential impact of leaving the EU. The results make for grim reading. Hospitality will be hit harder than any other sector by EU migration restrictions and there will be a shortfall of 60,000 workers as early as next year – this is on top of the existing staff shortage.

By 2029, the recruitment gap could be as great as one million. Considering hospitality employees currently number around three million, these are some terrifying numbers. If we think the staff and skills shortage is bad now, the next 12 to 24 months look set to make us yearn for the ‘good old days’ of 2017.

Taken in isolation, these numbers would be enough to bring even the most battle-hardened operator out in a cold sweat. When you begin to add other considerations into the equation, the near future for the industry that we know and love doesn’t look particularly bright. In fact, it looks pretty dark.

A staff and skills shortage – soon to be exacerbated by crashing out of the EU (with no agreements in place at the time of writing), margins being squeezed ever tighter, a disinterested Government and a fickle clientele are all working themselves into a perfect storm. It may be on the horizon at the moment, but it is approaching with ferocious rapidity. 

What is to be done? I’ve given this some thought over the past few months and shall now humbly propose my own suggestions for consideration, to which I hope there won’t be too much objection. My solution is both simple and effective. It has a loose historical precedent and already exists in other parts of Europe. It would also solve completely some of the issues we are facing, and partially resolve others.

There is a labour pool that we have, thus far, been unable to tap into. According to ONS figures, during the first quarter of this year there were 800,000 16 to 24-year-olds not in employment, education or training. Of these, 40% of them were able to, and were actively seeking, work. This equates to a potential workforce of 320,000 young, enthusiastic, willing and able people: more than enough to negate any shortage we are currently facing, not to mention future-proofing ourselves against the expected increased shortfall post-Brexit.

Furthermore, it is a talent pool that is constantly replenishing itself. The question is, how do we encourage them into the fold and convince them that restaurant, pub, hotel and bar work is a worthwhile and sensible career choice?

Encouragement is not coming from home: a survey published last year showed that just 17% of parents regard hospitality as a positive career, and a third of respondents would actively discourage their children from working in the industry. Perhaps, therefore, an element of coercion is what is required.

A radical solution

Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you a nationwide hospitality conscription drive that I’m provisionally calling national ‘service’. In brief, starting in April 2019, all UK residents between the ages of 16 and 24 would be conscripted to work for a full year within the industry, either in the kitchen or a customer-facing front of house  role. A six-month stint in each would also be acceptable and, in many cases, beneficial.

They would be employed full-time – remunerated to the tune of at least the national living wage – on a contract that would be subsidised entirely, or in part, by the Government. The cost of this would be met by the inevitable reduction in youth unemployment and the boost to the economy that having a more buoyant hospitality industry would have. Indeed, PwC reported that a fall in youth unemployment by just 1.4% could add up to £45bn a year to the country’s economy.

national-service-logo

This may sound radical, and in many respects it is, but unprecedented situations call for radical solutions. On leaving the army in 2015, Prince Harry made an impassioned argument for the reintroduction of conscription: ‘Bring back national service, without a doubt it keeps you out of trouble. I dread to think where I’d be without the army,’ he said, and he may be on to something.

Although Britain phased out compulsory military service in 1960, several European nations including Denmark, Finland, Norway and Switzerland still have a system in place. What’s more, the concept still has significant support among the older generation, many of whom have a negative view of the attitude that millennials supposedly have towards hard work. Such populism is a proven vote winner and would likely be a much-needed shot in the arm for our beleaguered Government.

Unfortunately, job creation through military expansion has, historically, had a bit of bad press and still struggles to shake off the faint air of fascism that hangs over it. My solution offers all of the benefits – teaching discipline, respect and work ethic – without any of the drawbacks – like having to kill people, or being forced to put up a tent in the Brecon Beacons.

Plugging the post-Brexit staff shortage is just one of several benefits that instituting a system of mandated national service would yield. There are also the developmental, societal and health benefits to the new employees to consider.

Employment in any workplace teaches many fundamental life skills, but these are particularly apparent in restaurants, cafés, pubs and hotels where teamwork, time management, discipline and interacting with the public are all an everyday reality. Over the past few years, those on whom we rely to pay the bills – the great dining public – have become slightly less dependable than they once were.

Social media groans under the weight of tales of no-shows, stories about unfair treatment at the hands of faceless guests on review sites and complaints about the ever-increasing expectations of customers towards chefs and restaurants, particularly with respect to dietary requirements. Despite making every effort to redress this balance, there seems to be an increasing disconnect between patrons and those of us who work hard to provide a quality service.

Perhaps it is a consequence of a more impersonal booking process, a result of social media or simply evocative of a reduction in societal politeness in general but, in any case, being on the front line can sometimes be an unpleasant experience. Whether it is young wait staff on the receiving end of drunken rudeness, an exhausted chef trying to construct a vegan tasting menu à la minute, or an experienced operator responding to another misrepresentative TripAdvisor review, dealing with customers can be a challenge.

Making a change

While these behaviours would not be eradicated overnight, I’d be willing to bet that there would be a significant correlation between the introduction of mandatory hospitality work and a reduction in no-shows, unfair requests and general rudeness. Put simply, you are far less  likely to be disrespectful of the dining experience if you have been on the receiving end.

The general public aren’t the only ones who seem unaware, or indifferent, to the plight we are facing. Despite ongoing calls and campaigns, an apathetic Government has consistently failed to give financial breaks, incentives or opportunities to the restaurant and hospitality sector. Requests for a consideration in VAT reduction, tenants’ rights in safeguarding against punitive rent hikes and protection against rises in business rates have all been ignored. A subsidy to help meet inflating wages would doubtless make it easier to pay the increased costs of rent, rates, utilities and ingredients.

These rising costs, which are evident across the board, aren’t going to ease any time soon, especially as a weakened sterling buys even less in the Eurozone. A total absence of trade deals may also prevent the purchase of any fresh produce from the Continent. Looking inwards, to home-grown fruit and vegetables, is one possible solution but even now, farmers are struggling to find enough seasonal staff to help during the busy harvest season. We are hearing worrying reports of produce simply rotting, unpicked, in fields all over the country.  Given that national ‘service’ will more than adequately cover our staff shortfall, we might actually end up with a surplus of employees.

My suggestion would be to ‘loan’ these excess staff out to the agricultural industry for seasonal work on farms. I dare say that we could even encourage some sort of barter system where labour could be exchanged for produce in order to simplify the process.

There are, of course, several other benefits to a system of national ‘service’ that I can’t go into detail about right now, but I wish to say that I haven’t the least personal interest in trying to promote this necessary work, have no motivation other than the public good of the country, advancing our trade, providing for our youth, relieving the industry and giving some pleasure to diners. If anyone from the Cabinet would like to engage my services, I would be delighted to come and discuss them further.

Theresa, Sajid, I’m waiting for your call.

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