A spectre has stalked hospitality: staffing shortages. The statistics, if nothing else, are stark. According to a recent study by Lightspeed, to give one example, 43% of British hospitality insiders report that they’re operating with fewer workers than they need – a figure that rises to over half across the North Sea in Germany. If anything, meanwhile, the situation across the Atlantic is even worse.

As the American Hotel and Lodging Association warned in June, 82% of industry leaders are struggling to fill vacancies, with a hapless quarter actually seeing service drop as a result. Nor are these travails limited to particular departments. Though many managers are finding it hard to hire housekeepers and other cleaners, waiters, receptionists and chefs are all in short supply too.

Once you add the burden of retention, with turnover in some places as high as 74%, it can almost become hard to fathom how industry hiring managers get up in the morning. At any rate, this turmoil raises an obvious question. Why, when there were 146,000 hospitality vacancies in the UK alone at the start of 2023, are workers staying away, or else leaving the sector at the earliest opportunity? In truth, there are a range of potential reasons, from pay and conditions to simply managing human capital in an increasingly volatile business environment. But any analysis must surely include the inability of hoteliers to entice people at the very start of their careers. Once again, the numbers are revealing. Consider, for instance, the fact that just one in ten British young people are willing to choose a career in hospitality, with 36% blaming the frequently low pay.

Of course, these difficulties can also be viewed as opportunities. If, after all, barely one in 20 college-leavers are currently donning hotel uniforms, that leaves space for managers to snatch them up. Beyond the brutal vacancy data, meanwhile, there are obvious advantages to securing young talent, both for workers themselves and their new paymasters. At their best, young people can even become employees for life, imbibing a hotel’s culture and customs as they mature. It, therefore ,makes sense, at any rate, that so many operators are investing in internships and graduate schemes and online classes, all squarely aimed at the hotelier of tomorrow.

Having a staff

So how does one understand hospitality’s ongoing staffing crisis? For Anjana Raza, there are a range of factors. Probably the most immediate trigger, explains the head of social responsibility at the Sustainable Hospitality Alliance, is the pandemic. “I think with the build up of the gig economy, and other opportunities in other sectors, and ways of working that emerged [from] Covid, it attracted a lot of talent in other sectors,” she says.

It goes without saying, Raza continues, that the hospitality sector has struggled to prove so appealing. Nor are these issues hard to appreciate. Whereas a career in hospitality often encompasses high stress and poor remuneration – research by the Living Wage Foundation in March 2023 found that 53% of hospitality jobs in London are low paid – the likes of Uber or Deliveroo all offer more independence and flexibility.

Young people, for their part, are singularly affected by these problems. Increasingly demanding hybrid work schedules from employers, and typically preferring to liaise with colleagues by Zoom, workers just entering the workforce are predictably reluctant to work in hotels: places where physical attendance and guest interactions are obviously key. It hardly helps, meanwhile, that industry internships are falling in popularity too. In Switzerland, to give one example, just 252 young people started hospitality apprenticeships in 2020, down from 379 nine years earlier.

Once again, this decline can partly be appreciated by the conditions. Though Europeans enjoy more protections than their US cousins in this regard, the hours are often long and the compensation often miserly, even as many apprentices are expected to trek long distances to work. No wonder a survey by the German Federation of Trade Unions found that only half of hospitality trainees were happy with their apprenticeships, a figure that rose to 80% among industrial mechanics.

This lack of youth enthusiasm – coupled with the tussle for jobs – is having a real impact on how hotels run. Now the pandemic is behind us, Raza warns that “some hotels continue to function not to full capacity”, even as services are cut back too. One example centres around housekeeping, with some properties no longer cleaning a guest’s room every night. To make matters worse, workers who do stick it out in hospitality have fewer colleagues to rely on, increasing pressure in a sector not reputed for calmness.

That, in turn, risks sparking a vicious cycle, as unhappy workers abandon hospitality in search of pastures new, along the way leaving survivors in an even worse plight. And with 6% of hospitality staff resigning every month, it’s clearly not a problem that’s disappearing anytime soon.

Workarounds at play

Radisson Academy. IHG Skills Academy. Hilton Apprenticeships. Visit the website of any big hotel chain and you’ll soon find a training scheme for young people. But more than the content of these programmes – Accor promises to teach ‘skills for work and life’ while IHG offers advice on everything from guest interactions to digitalisation – are the way they make students feel welcome. Wherever you look, you’ll find references to mental health and diversity and, to quote IHG’s example, “living a more balanced lifestyle”.

Nor is this focus especially hard to appreciate. With competition from other sectors rising every day, hospitality is increasingly obliged to offer young workers much more than mere wages. The Sustainable Hospitality Alliance is at the centre of these developments too. Acting as a go-between between NGOs and hotel operators, it helps eager young professionals find the right employer. Yet beyond mere recruitment, Raza and her team seem most interested in ensuring these partnerships are actually appealing. As she explains, that could be as simple as matching youngsters to hotels near their homes. And for those apprentices who do have to travel, especially women, Raza equally advocates giving them safer day shifts. “These are small changes,” she stresses, “but a hotel team may not be aware of it.”

Decent remuneration is important here too: Raza is encouraged by developments in the UK, which recently announced plans to raise the minimum wage by nearly 10%. More to the point, there’s plenty of evidence that investing in staff early can pay off over the longer term. As research by the University of Warwick uncovered, employers were able to recoup the costs of training young people over just a couple of years. And though specific statistics for hospitality are scarce, Barratt Development, the housing giant, found that by promoting from within the company could save £4,000 in recruitment costs. Raza, for her part, sees tangible benefits in focusing on the young as well. “Young people are quicker in picking up technology,” she argues, adding that when it comes to issues like sustainability, they’re more likely to bring passion to the fight than their older colleagues too.

Jobs for life?

There are challenges here. As an organisation particularly focused on bringing displaced and other vulnerable people into the hospitality fold, Raza says that the Sustainable Hospitality Alliance can struggle to make candidates presentable at first glance. Once again, that requires thoughtful partnerships with hotel chains, helping them grasp that the “presentation skills” and “communication skills” of, for instance, a young Ukrainian refugee, may need fine-tuning. To be fair, there are signs operators themselves understand this. IHG, for its part, now offers online training courses in a range of languages, including Arabic, Spanish, Thai – and Ukrainian.

At the same time, there’s plenty of reasons to imagine that demand for such gateways into the world of hospitality are only going to increase. A full 70% of people in sub-Saharan Africa are under the age of 30, and with the populations of western countries ageing fast, the need of hotels to secure eager young workers is only going to rise. Not that new recruits are necessarily destined to remain with a single boss forever. For if robust professional partnerships can clearly help employers and workers alike – Hilton is one of the many chains to offer generous sabbatical and retirement schemes – Raza is equally conscious that the old cliché of jobs for life no longer applies. Fortunately, she stresses, the skills you learn in hospitality are “very transferable” elsewhere, something that’s clearly true from people management to digital. Given how changeable modern employment seems anyway, such flexibility can only help.