Sunny days should see Hertfordshire’s restaurants and pubs welcoming customers, but they face a staffing nightmare.
Lunchtime in St Albans on a sunny weekday in half-term, and restaurants, bars and cafes are doing a roaring trade. Demand has bounced back strongly among residents of the Hertfordshire commuter town, who appear eager to eat and drink out again after lockdown.
And after months of enforced closure, hospitality venues, too, are pleased to have finally been able to reopen both their indoor and outdoor seating areas. But the easing of coronavirus restrictions has brought a fresh set of challenges.
While the customers have returned, many staff members haven’t – leaving the hospitality industry grappling with a severe staffing shortage, just as they set about trying to recoup some of the money lost over the past year.
“It’s a crisis in this branch,” said Steven Cobb, general manager of Megan’s, an all-day restaurant and bar chain with several sites in and around London. “It’s such a massive issue. I have spent all this week just trying to recruit chefs.”
Ideally, Cobb would have 55 staff at the St Albans branch, which opened for the first time last October. He is currently about 20 team members short, although six new front-of-house workers, including waiters, are about to join.
It’s in the kitchen that the restaurant faces the biggest problem. In an industry that has long relied on EU migrants, Cobb blames the unfortunate cocktail of Covid and Brexit for a lack of applicants to fill 10 back-of-house vacancies.
“It’s hot, and it’s long hours. For the amount of skill you need, the pay has never been great, so these jobs have always suited migrant workers,” Cobb said. Increasing the hourly pay offered for a chef by a quarter to £12 any hour hasn’t brought in any more suitable applicants. “That’s how I know the staff don’t exist.”
In the short term, Cobb says, he will have to accept fewer bookings and turn customers away, to prevent burnout among his kitchen staff.
There are “We are hiring” signs in the windows of numerous pubs, cafes, bars and restaurants in this affluent town. And the picture is repeated across the UK as venues hunt desperately for baristas, waiters, chefs and managers.
Overall, the number of online job adverts in the UK has surged to 118% of its pre-pandemic average in recent weeks, according to official figures, as firms reopening after lockdown rush to hire staff.
According to the jobs website Indeed, the biggest increase is in food preparation and service vacancies, which are up 507% since the government announced its roadmap out of lockdown in late February. Vacancies have also risen in warehouse work, as online shopping remains popular.
“We’re seeing a big bottleneck in the jobs market right now because the easing of restrictions has given many sectors a shot in the arm to go on a hiring spree,” said Pawel Adrjan, head of European research at Indeed. “The big question is whether this is permanent or temporary.”
Britain’s recruitment squeeze is mirrored in several other big economies, including the US and Australia. Economists are wondering whether this is because pandemic travel restrictions are having an impact on migrant workers, or whether people are reluctant to move off benefits and into a job while the health risks from coronavirus remain.
In the US, some economists have blamed the economic stimulus cheques handed out to households for deterring workers from seeking new jobs. There are also questions over whether people have reassessed their job priorities during lockdown, and whether older workers have retired earlier than would have otherwise been the case.https://interactive.guim.co.uk/uploader/embed/2021/06/industry-shortagecharts/giv-825b10vCT3mQcfU/
This may seem surprising after headlines last year warned of the Covid recession causing a return to 1980s-style unemployment, and with millions of employees still on furlough. Youth unemployment remains high, with 80% of job losses in the pandemic being among under-35s. Other young people have chosen to stay in education or live with parents until the labour market eases.Advertisement
Unemployment in the UK has stabilised in recent months, helped by the extension of the furlough scheme until the end of September. Official figures show that 1.6 million people were out of work in the three months to March. This represents 4.8% of the workforce, down from 1.7 million in the three months to February.
The Bank of England now expects the jobless rate to peak at almost 5.5% after furlough ends, compared with 4% – or about 1.3 million people – before the pandemic.
The figures fall a long way short of the initial fears, last year, that unemployment could hit 12% as a result of what was expected to be the worst recession in 300 years.
While millions have come off furlough in recent months, more than 2.1 million people were still on emergency coronavirus job support in mid-May – including up to a fifth of the total hospitality workforce.
The scheme is due to be scaled back in July and will finish completely at the end of September. However, there are worries of a fresh wave of job losses if the government delays the easing of restrictions in England on 21 June.
Faced with staff shortages, employers could raise wages and offer better working conditions. Some restaurants, including the steak chain Hawksmoor, are offering bonuses to workers who recommend friends. In the US, Uber is offering $250m (£177m) in sign-up bonuses. Some economists believe that higher pay could see inflation rise – as businesses facing a higher wage bill increase their prices.
Concern is already mounting that a sudden post-lockdown thaw in the UK economy will lead to red-hot inflation. However, Adrjan at Indeed said there was little sign of sustained wage pressure emerging. The Bank of England expects a burst of high inflation this summer, but believes it will be only temporary.
“For now there is little evidence of generalised pressures. The fact that we’re reading about one-off bonuses does make me think that many employers are not willing to increase wages,” Adrjan said.
Back in St Albans, inside the Cock Inn – a 17th-century building with wooden beams and a courtyard garden – manager Andreas Wright and other colleagues are working longer hours to compensate for the shortage of staff.
“The managers are doing 50-plus hours a week, so it’s quite tough,” Wright said, “especially with table service for food and drink.”
Round the corner at the Beech House bar and restaurant, general manager Rebecca Canner has worked in hospitality for 13 years and says: “I have not seen it like this before, even in September and October post lockdown one.” She is looking to hire seven more staff members at the venue, which is owned by pub group Oakman Inns.
“Finding experienced team members is tricky,” she said, adding that some have left the industry for good. “I think lots of people have re-evaluated their life choices after Covid.”
However she also believes that new visa requirements for EU workers since the start of the year are beginning to bite.
“Settled status is a big part of it,” Canner said. “Traditionally we have had lots of European staff coming and joining and they have always been an asset to the team. Now it is hard for those coming to prove their settled status.”
The hospitality industry will have to adapt to face the staffing challenges thrown up by Covid and Brexit, according to Andrei Lussmann, owner of Lussmann’s, a small chain of fish and grill restaurants across Hertfordshire, although he concedes that this may take time.Advertisement
The 30-strong workforce at his St Albans branch is about five team members short. “Brexit means that the tap [of EU staff] has been turned off,” said Lussmann. “We need to invest more time and money to keep people in the business.”
As many as 1.3 million non-UK workers are estimated to have left Britain since late 2019, most of them choosing to see through the pandemic in their country of birth. With travel restrictions still in place, and tougher post-Brexit migration rules, fewer EU residents are expected to come to the UK for work.
Despite having been a passionate supporter of Brexit, Tim Martin, the chairman of Wetherspoon’s, last week called on the government to introduce a visa scheme for EU workers as the pub chain struggles to recruit staff.
On Indeed, searches from overseas workers are down 12% since 2019, as a share of all searches for UK jobs, which suggests employers have to rely more on domestic candidates. And searches for jobs in food service and preparation – where many lower-paid EU staff would typically have worked – have plunged by 61%.
Lussmann laments the way hospitality as a profession is rarely respected in the UK, in the way it is in the US and Europe. And even if the staff shortage leads to a short-term squeeze, the restaurateur believes it may be beneficial to the economy – and to employees – in the long run.
“I think in the end it will drive the industry to train better, develop more and look after staff more,” he said. “In the long term it is not a bad thing. It will mean better employers will do well and those who are not so good will eventually struggle to survive.”