Why are skilled key staff are harder and harder to find?

This recent shortage of skilled hospitality staff (pre COVID19) seems to be widespread around Australia and was getting worse. My staff and I are probably more aware of this than most people in the industry because we’re continually on the lookout for ‘superstars’ on behalf of our prestige clients. The last two years have been especially trying, with an acute shortage of good General Managers, Chefs, Restaurant Managers, Head Waiters and most other supervisory staff.

We get lots of applicants but quality is rare

Lots of applicants, but few are appropriately skilled

It’s not that we don’t get lots of applicants — that’s not the problem. There is an endless supply of people willing to ‘try it on’ in a difficult job market. It’s the lack of real skills that is causing us headaches. We mainly recruit for private businesses, so we are looking for those unusual people who can perform without the support you would find in a corporate environment. We can’t afford to take even a small risk with someone who is marginal because we usually have to work with them in our clients’ businesses afterwards.

Why is this happening? I don’t profess to have the definitive answer, but I do have some observations you may find interesting and perhaps thought provoking. There are some issues bubbling away that may shape the way you structure your human resources in the future.

Industry has grown by 400% since 1990 while our population has only grown by 25% during the same period

Our industry is growing faster than the skilled labour force

The hospitality industry is growing very rapidly in Australia — 400% since 1990 — much more rapidly than the population and the supply of skilled staff. Many regions that were previously relying on primary industry have swung over to tourism as international commodity prices have fallen and agriculture has become more difficult. Tourism and hospitality go hand in hand, so everywhere tourism is developing there is an insatiable need for food and accommodation.

At the same time as we’re experiencing this growth we’ve found that many older, experienced hospitality staff are leaving the industry or going into business for themselves — both of which tend to exacerbate staff shortages. Economic forces have made many businesses financially difficult, so most employers are demanding longer working hours and also placing strong pressure on key staff for the delivery of ever increasing standards. Hospitality is becoming more and more a young persons’ game. We’re hearing the plaintive cries for a better lifestyle everywhere we go.

Key staff salaries in hospitality are increasing far faster than inflation

Salaries are escalating beyond inflation

It has now become a vicious circle — because of the working hours, stress and pressure, job applicants are asking for more and more money. The more money they ask for, the more skills and experience employers require. This insidious cycle has gradually escalated demands from both sides, to the point where we now are facing, if not a crisis, then certainly a period of sustained difficulty for business operators.

I don’t profess to know how to fix this situation, nor is it really a problem that will badly affect our business. The more difficult the job market becomes, the more demand there is for our training services. The full brunt of the problem falls on those dealing direct with the public — the thousands of operators in the industry who either do not have the time or are not equipped to deal with the big picture. Obviously this is not a good situation, and it’s only going to get worse.

Time for Government involvement?

It’s got to the point where I think the problem really should be addressed on a Government level. Hospitality and tourism combined are the second biggest income earner for Australia. Imagine what would happen if it were the farmers having this difficulty. The various Governments would be falling over each other to offer resources and financial support. The difference between them and us is that they have immense political power and very well organised lobby groups — and we don’t. So when a problem like this arises it tends to get the odd bit of publicity, but not much action.

When we do get action we have to be careful what form it comes in. I’ve recently seen the idea mooted for the relaxation of our immigration laws to allow a flood of foreign cooks (Chefs, as they are often inaccurately described) into the country to rectify the current shortfall. While this idea has quite a bit of popular support, I’m not in favour of it for several reasons.

Migration is not the answer

Migrants make great staff but they need to know our labour laws and our supply chains to be key staff — especially head chefs.

The real shortage is with the supply of Chefs who can manage a kitchen and control costs — not with basic cooks. You need a lot of local knowledge to manage a kitchen efficiently so I believe that we are unlikely to solve this problem within the private sector with an influx of foreign staff. I’m also not too comfortable with the concept of bringing staff into the country while we still have high unemployment among our own people. This will only address the symptom and not the root problem.

I think it’s time for us all to stand back and reconsider the whole subject of career path and job skills for key staff in this industry. It’s already been addressed for lower level staff through the industry training accreditation system, but there is nothing in place that will ensure the steady supply of key staff over the next ten years.

We have a golden opportunity to strengthen our domestic market and grab a much larger chunk of the international tourism market if we get our act together. At present we seem to be poaching the small pool of good people who are out there from one job to another. The only winners are those smart people who have had the foresight to acquire a stable job history and solid skills. From an employers’ perspective there is little to be gained from paying inflated salary levels that remain artificially high due to demand exceeding supply.

You can only charge so much for a meal or a bed.