Where are they? The search for talent in hospitality sector

Staff shortages continue to affect the hospitality industry. In the coming days we talk to people about the challenges the sector faces. Today we hear from Dr Donagh Davern, Department of Tourism and Hospitality at Munster Technological University
Where are they? The search for talent in hospitality sector

Dr Donagh Davern, lecturer in the Department of Tourism and Hospitality at MTU.

HOSPITALITY businesses are struggling to staff their premises as they emerge from Covid lockdown.

Many have business which they could accommodate, but instead have chosen to close for a few days mid-week to give their existing staff a break, as voiced by one well known Clare hotelier in a recent interview on RTÉ radio.

Another hotelier, Andrew Moore, the new General Manager of The Conrad Hotel in Dublin, who was recently interviewed in the Hotel & Restaurant Times, spoke about how his hotel had to reassess their business and focus on the guests that their current staffing levels allowed them to accommodate, even though they had a much higher demand. Their current human resource situation, where recruitment and retention are strained, simply would not allow them to take the extra business.

The Covid pandemic, Brexit and the lingering poor reputation of the hospitality sector as an employer, have combined to create a perfect storm in terms of staff recruitment and retention.

Many staff have returned to their native countries and travel restrictions simply didn’t allow them return to take up their employment when the industry reopened post-restrictions. Other workers migrated to markets such as the UK which opened much quicker post-lockdown, allowing them to work in hotels, restaurants, cafes and bars. 

According to Government figures published in September, there were 7,000 less accommodation/food service sector employees in receipt of the Pandemic Unemployment Payment (PUP) in mid-September, however, 37,000 hospitality workers remained on PUP as the sector continued to suffer from severe staff shortages.

In an industry where competition for staff is so high, its reputation for being a minimum-wage employer is waning a little, as if businesses want staff, they have to pay the going rate.

Saying that, the cost of living has increased and the living wage has been revised upwards by €2.70 to €12.90 an hour due to the inflation of costs such as rent, transport and energy.

However, setting money aside, there is a consistent issue with the employer brand of the sector. Changes in legislation around pay and holidays have improved the hospitality industry as an employer, but they now need to go further and enhance their strategies in areas such as greater flexibility, work-life balance, training and development.

It is interesting to note McDonalds’ latest radio advertising campaign focuses on attracting students in third level education, promising flexibility in work hours on staff rosters to fit in around their class timetable.

Hospitality businesses are facing increased competition from the likes of call-centres and the retail sector for employees with a service ethic and there is evidence of past hospitality workers transitioning to these and other areas.

During the lockdowns, people evaluated their priorities, some up-skilled and studied to change industries, some sought a greater work-life balance. As competition for employees increases, individual businesses need to stand out from a crowded recruitment market and show their employer brand is one that is worthy of an applicant’s interest.

Candidates are looking beyond the hourly rate and focusing on quality of life, advancement opportunities and even how a business responds to issues which are close to their own heart – such as environmental or ethical issues. The employer brand for the hospitality industry is poor, i.e. the sector has a poor reputation for employment. Associations with poor wages, long hours, not being paid correctly, working when everyone else is off or enjoying themselves, are difficult to shake off. The first thing the hospitality industry needs to do is to recognise (honestly) its shortcomings as an employer. A lot of money is spent on marketing individual hotels and the sector as a whole to potential customers – now money needs to be spent to market the sector to potential employees and improve the employer brand.

Highlight the best employers – there is too much of a focus on those employers who are not treating their staff correctly. It’s time for hotel managers to take personal responsibility for the industry’s employer brand and there are some really good hospitality employers out there who are offering great benefits that others in the sector can learn from. The Team at Ashford Castle – which Virtuoso ranked as the best hotel in the world – under the leadership of Niall Rochford, recently produced videos highlighting the rewards that their team-members receive by working in the industry, along with a video focusing on how one team member achieved a rewarding career, combined with work-life balance and flexibility. They have heavily invested in their staff welfare strategy to attract and retain quality staff, including the construction of a 45 bedroom accommodation building for staff costing €2 million. Trigon Hotels, based in Cork and led by Cobh native Aaron Mansworth, have a long-standing reputation for involving their team members in social and charitable causes, raising much-needed funds for organisations such as the Saoirse Foundation and Cope Foundation.

The sector is encouraged to examine their recruitment costs. Wouldn’t it be better just to retain the good staff and to attract people who actually want to work for you because of your positive reputation as an employer? Yes, I know the labour costs are high and offering employee benefits costs money – but where will the sector be if there are no staff to service clients? Learn from some of the great employers out there in sectors such as IT – how is it that Google and Facebook can get their employee food offering so right and hospitality companies whose business it is to create food experiences can often get their staff food offering so wrong?

There are 1,082 available jobs in the hotel sector listed on the recruitment website jobs.ie today. 

In Cork, a number of hotel openings are planned to add to recent entries to the market such as The Dean (114 rooms) and the REZz (72 rooms), including a 165 bedroom hotel on Parnell Place, the 217 bedroom M Hotel on Harley Street, 193 bedrooms on Sullivan’s Quay, over 100 bedrooms on Custom House Quay, 194 on Camden Quay, a 187 room Premier Inn on Morrison’s Island and 158 bedrooms on the Kinsale Road. These combined with planned additions to the Vienna Woods (42 rooms) and the Montenotte Hotel (23 holiday units), will add over 1000 additional bedrooms to the City’s current bedroom stock.

School-leavers are certainly not applying for college courses in the sector in the numbers they used to and there are many available training places out there that remain unfilled. People need to be encouraged to enter the industry by promoting a strong Employer Brand which cares for its employees.

The solution to the recruitment and retention crisis in the hospitality sector is to evaluate the employer brand now and to take action to enhance it. The future of the sector depends on it.

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