The term ‘Malthusian Trap’ refers to the disjunct between a population and its resources. The phenomenon, theorised by Thomas Malthus in the 1790s, is one in which a population increase is disproportionate to the supplies available, usually as a result of some kind of catastrophe such as war or famine.

In recent years, theorists have feared a new variant of the Malthusian Trap, one in which, as Malthus himself wrote, “the number of labourers” is “above the proportion of the work in the market” – only, unlike Malthus, contemporary thinkers fear a widening of the gap as the result of an increasingly automated workforce.

Yet, despite rising fears of automation and the very real catastrophe of Covid-19, something like a reverse Malthusian Trap has opened in the UK’s hospitality sector in 2021; the jobs are very much there, but it’s the workforce that isn’t. At first glance, this discrepancy seems remarkable and strange: surely, after a year of precarious pay, a year of working from the sofa, and after a year, for some, with no job at all, the hospitality sector – its doors finally open again – would be flooded with applications? Or so you might think.

But as the Covid-19 crisis was playing out, another force was at work in the UK: Britain’s withdrawal from the EU. Call it a catastrophe or success, there is no denying that Brexit has played a huge role in this reverse Malthusian Gap, this dearth of key workers within the sector. “Brexit is undeniably a factor, as is Covid,” confirms Sophie Kilic, SVP for Human Resources at Accor Northern Europe. “Many international workers returned home and either can’t get back to the UK for work or have since found other jobs while UK hospitality was closed.”

Best-in-class hospitality

The confluence of Brexit and Covid-19 has been something of a poisonous cocktail in many sectors across the country, and it has hit hospitality hard. Before Brexit, it is estimated that as many as 30% of hospitality workers nationwide were from Europe – a figure that rises to 50% in London. But the need for many European hospitality workers to return to their home countries – whether due to work permits or a desire to be with family during the pandemic – has decimated the hospitality workforce. Now, many of the potential candidates who would have filled these vacancies in the past simply aren’t there anymore. What’s more, for UK workers, or for those otherwise unaffected by Brexit, Covid-19 has raised legitimate concerns about working in the hospitality sector: many remain anxious about working around large numbers of people while the threat of the virus lingers; others may be concerned about working on a zero hours contract when the possibility of another lockdown still looms.

Yet, as Kilic notes, these are not the only circumstances that have contributed to today’s recruitment issues. “There are also pre-existing factors,” she explains. “The UK and Europe have different relationships with hospitality – it’s a career of choice in Europe, populated by leading hospitality schools, and in the UK, an outdated reputation for the sector still lingers.” Part of the problem, as Kilic implies, is that the UK simply doesn’t appear to value the hospitality sector as a career, in the way that many European countries do. The widespread introduction of zero hours contracts in the UK has only helped to reinforce the notion that jobs in the hospitality sector are merely temporary or starter positions – an image that has got to change if the country is going to get the sector back on its feet. As Joe Warwick, manager of Soho restaurant Sola, recently noted in The Evening Standard, “we need to get the message out there that there is a career in this, and that it can be a fun and rewarding job”.

“The UK and Europe have different relationships with hospitality – it’s a career of choice in Europe, populated by leading hospitality schools, and in the UK, an outdated reputation for the sector still lingers.”

Sophie Kilic


The number of apprenticeships on offer throughout the UK from Accor.


For Kilic, the possibility for making this kind of deep level change inheres in education. Across Europe, “the presence of a globally renowned hospitality school ricochets through country and region,” she notes. “You can’t underestimate the [importance] of best-in-class education to elevate a subject in the minds of candidates. Just like having a great teacher at school, having an educational system promoting hospitality from a young age could really make a difference in the [attraction] of our sector, and this would have a huge impact on the UK industry.”

A golden opportunity

At Accor, Kilic and her colleagues are working on just such a system. The hotel company have recently “launched an apprenticeship scheme in the UK for new recruits and current employees looking to further their skills or move to a new area of the business”, Kilic explains. “The scheme will offer more than 250 apprenticeships throughout the UK in all brands from ibis to Fairmont. The programme covers several roles across the full business, including chefs, customer service, facilities management, outdoor activities, marketing, project management and events, reflecting the flexibility that many apprentices are looking for and the variety of role found in the hospitality industry.”

Such investments in the future are all to the good, but the crisis currently facing the sector demands that we devise short term solutions too, in order to keep valuable businesses alive at a moment when people need hospitality more than ever.

As Kilic notes, there are a number of quick fixes that the industry can make to recruitment strategies, to ease the problem in the here and now. “The pressure to attract, recruit and retain new talent is relentless,” she admits, “but we can make a silver lining out of this extraordinary situation. This is a fantastic opportunity to challenge ourselves and explore options that, whatever the reasons (time, budget, expertise, priority) we were not considering enough in the past. There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution that applies to all hotels, locations, jobs and candidates and, therefore, we need to be more creative, more disruptive and reset our view on recruitment in general.”

“Hospitality matters because it has heart and people are the heart. It is people who care; who connect; who create experiences; who create memories; who look at their businesses and think ‘how can I help’ or ‘how can I do more’.”

Sophie Kilic

The time is now

Kilic suggests a combination of the effective communication of opportunities for careers and development within the industry, the introduction of staff benefits and optimised working conditions, and the continuous exploration of new initiatives to attract a much wider pool of candidates. In other words, now is the moment to act and make the changes that the sector has needed for a number of years, so that UK hospitality can begin to rebrand itself for a brighter future.

Yet post-Covid-19 concerns will continue to linger, even as the world moves out of the pandemic – not least among them, the question of the work-life balance that many have re-evaluated since having the opportunity to work from home. Given that a large number of hospitality roles play out in high-pressured environments, and that remote working remains, for the most part, an impossibility for these jobs, how can serious mental health concerns for workers be addressed moving forward? “There is great flexibility […] in the hospitality sector,” Kilic asserts. “In a hotel, there are peaks and troughs of business that can be staffed creatively – for instance, the period in the middle of the day between school drop off and pick up is often busy in hotels and, therefore, offers a great opportunity for working parents. Hospitality has changed, and continues to adapt and improve. People are our greatest asset and employers recognise that.”

At the end of the day, it is this that underpins both the present and the future of hospitality for Kilic, as for many employers across the country: if it wants to survive, the sector needs to look after its staff as much as its customers. “We are committed to building back better,” she says, “and that’s not just about ESG, it’s about our people too. Throughout the pandemic we have demonstrated a people-first approach to hospitality. This is the key.

“Hospitality matters because it has heart and people are the heart. It is people who care; who connect; who create experiences; who create memories; who look at their businesses and think ‘how can I help?’ or ‘how can I do more?’. People are the heart and soul of hospitality. People have been and will always be the key.”