‘We are hiring’, but who will staff our shops, pubs and restaurants?

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The big question this year in Dingle is who is going to staff the pubs, restaurants and hotels

Summer comes early to Dingle, one of Ireland's busiest tourist destinations. A group of young European visitors are wandering around the shops, which sell Aran sweaters, scarves woven in Tipperary and brightly-coloured raincoats from Scandinavia. Some American tourists are having an early lunch in the unseasonable early spring sunshine outside the Marina Inn.

A cacophony of construction noises emanate from behind the brightly-painted facades of the shuttered businesses on Strand Street, the unmistakable clatter of a town reawakening after a long winter. Dingle has worked hard to extend the tourist season and those efforts are paying off. At the award-winning Castlewood House, owner Helen Heaton says there is some availability left in March, but after that, the guesthouse is heavily booked from Easter through to October.

There is a lot of pent-up demand from tourists who, prior to Covid, would have come twice or three times a year. Some already have multiple bookings for this year. Now, she says, “You’re looking at a season that starts in February, and ends in December.”

By St Patrick’s Day, Dingle will be fully open and ready to welcome those visitors back.

At least, that’s the plan. Just when the hospitality industry thought the worst of its problems had passed, it has slammed into a storm of another kind. Dingle has no shortage of pubs, restaurants and hotels, and no lack of people keen to visit them. The big question this year is who is going to staff them.

All along Strand Street and Main Street, there are signs taped to the windows. “We are hiring! Assistant manager position available.” “Bar, Waiting & Housekeeping Staff required. Immediate Start.” “Full and part time positions. Competitive wage.”

'The cost of product has gone up and the cost of utilities has gone way up and then the cost of labour has gone up'

What's happening here is a microcosm of what's happening everywhere in the country. Nationally, about 40,000 hospitality jobs have yet to be filled. Recent research by Fáilte Ireland found that up to 30 per cent of tourism and hospitality businesses could face closure if the staffing crisis in the sector is not resolved. "This is not just a Dingle issue, and it's not just a national issue. It's a global issue," says Paul Kelly, chief executive of Fáilte Ireland.

“We had a little bit of this problem before Covid, but Covid has multiplied it. So many staff went to work in other sectors, or they were migrant workers who went back to their home country and have not returned.”

Fáilte Ireland research found that four in 10 workers on the pandemic unemployment payment did not return to their previous employer once the lockdowns ended. As a result, “Some businesses are at real risk of not being able to reopen. Others are limiting their offering. You’re seeing restaurants which are opening in the evening, but not for lunch. Or in the accommodation sector, they’re opening just 80 per cent of their rooms. It is a major issue,” says Kelly.

Martin Bealin, the owner of the fine dining Global Village restaurant on Main Street, has come to a tough decision as a result of the staffing crisis. Since January, he has been advertising for a head chef and a front-of-house manager, and got only a handful of applications, all from outside Ireland and "looking to do a big move" with their eye on a nod from Michelin.

None was interested in working “for less than €60,000”. With a season that lasts for 40 weeks – “realistically, it’s 30 weeks” – the numbers didn’t add up. “Seeing what people of a decent calibre are looking for in wages, when you’re up against someone who can offer 52 weeks a year in a city, when you’re up against hotels and you’re up against industrial catering who can offer 8am to 4pm Monday to Friday,” made up his mind.

He is giving up on fine dining, and will instead offer a daytime-only service of good coffee, homemade patisserie and salads using produce from his own garden. If he can get the staff, he’ll open on summer evenings for wine and small plates and – again, staff depending – will serve street food from Curran’s bar next door.

“Since we came back from Covid, staffing costs have been shocking. The Government support was fantastic but what we were finding was we had to add the EWSS on to the normal salary rates, so it drove up the cost of labour, and that’s not going back.”

The addition of hundreds new outdoor seats in Dingle has compounded the pressure. “The result is that there are now only a few weeks in the summer when you can say that every [restaurant] will be full. The cost of product has gone up and the cost of utilities has gone way up and then the cost of labour has gone up. When I put it all together and did my figures for the season, I went, ‘Oh. There’s nothing left in that for me.’”

This is not exclusively a Dingle problem, but there is a sense that the town is paying the price of its own success. “We’ve extended the shoulder season, which is great,” says Niamh O’Kennedy, marketing and communications manager of Murphy’s Ice Cream. “So you’re promoting with Fáilte Ireland, you’re doing all this work on festivals and promoting Dingle. And then tourists get here and the restaurants can’t open because they’ve no staff, or the shops are on very limited opening hours. So you’re a victim of your own success.”

Finding staff was a struggle long before Covid in a place where there has been little new private housing built since the boom, and many landlords have shifted to the more lucrative short-term market. There are plenty of seasonal workers keen to come, but there’s nowhere for them to live. Last week, the property website Daft.ie showed no homes to rent long term in Dingle, but there are 114 holiday lets listed on Airbnb. Since the pandemic, the few houses that have come up for sale have been snapped up as short-term lets or by domestic holidaymakers and relocating remote workers.

'If you lose a staff member or somebody gets sick, you're really in trouble'

Murphy’s, which employs up to 90 people nationally across six shops, has a generous package of benefits for its 38 or so full-time employees, including opportunities for advancement and further education. It keeps as many people employed year-round as possible. But finding staff who can start work now is a huge challenge.

“Our pier shop will be opening on St Patrick’s weekend – and I’m currently the only staff member,” says Cian O’Driscoll, manager of the shop, which is also the test kitchen. He has been advertising for a full-time assistant manager but the response has been “slow”. “There’s just so many jobs going in Dingle that anyone who comes in has their pick of jobs. It’s a small, small pool of people to pull from. I’ve got a couple of CVs in, but I’m waiting to hear back from those people. They’re picky now about how many interviews they’ll go to.”

The conversation turns to the lack of accommodation for the college students and seasonal workers who traditionally arrived in Dingle for a summer of hard work and fun. In the past, they’d have stayed much farther out of town and driven to work, but rising fuel and insurance costs mean that’s no longer feasible. Or they might have stayed in mobile homes, but there are fewer of those now. When he started working in Murphy’s years ago, O’Driscoll spent one summer living on a boat. He suggests that’s something they might have to consider again. I think he’s joking. “But it always works out,” says O’Kennedy.

“I’m the one opening the shop in three weeks. I hope it does work out,” laughs O’Driscoll.

Fáilte Ireland has come up with a range of responses to the staffing crisis in hospitality, including programmes for transition-year students and third-level colleges, as well as initiatives to upskill employees and help business owners “become really excellent employers”.

Seventy per cent of people in hospitality see it as a long-term career, and the plan is to grow that figure, but it will take time.

In the meantime, Fáilte Ireland is offering “training to businesses to help them pass that interview with employees. Because it’s almost at the stage where employees are interviewing employers.”

A number of job ads are taped to the partition around the outside dining area at John Benny’s pub. The perks on offer are generous: “Competitive wage, staff meals, tips, flexible hours, accommodation can be arranged if required.”

Owner John Benny Moriarty brings me upstairs to the Greenroom at John Benny's, the new cocktail bar he opened last summer, partly as a way to keep one of his bar floor staff – who first came to Dingle four years ago from a catering school in Hungary – motivated. "We knew this would pique his interest. It's about trying to upskill the people we have, and to allow them to learn a little bit more. My son did two mixology courses, and he's now able to train people in."

It worked. That staff member returned last week, and he’s living in the staff house Moriarty bought six years ago, in anticipation of the looming accommodation crisis. “We foresaw this would be an issue. So we took out a loan to buy accommodation in Dingle.”

Even so, despite all his efforts, “It’s difficult to be able to find the right people.” This year, “we’re looking for two chefs in the kitchen” who can keep up with the demands of a busy pub.

Moriarty is all about trying to find solutions. “You could be talking about it forever, but how you solve it is the problem?” He would like to see Erasmus-style exchange programmes with other European countries, and more accessible retraining programmes for people moving into hospitality.

'I don't know where it's going to stop. Everything is going up. Wages are going up. Is it going to be affordable for people to go out?'

The staff house means he can recruit workers from overseas, but like everyone else I interview, he’s conscious that Dingle’s tourism offering hangs in the balance. “The whole thing needs to work. It’s symbiotic. It’s pointless for me having loads of staff if nobody’s coming because Gary doesn’t have anybody to look after people who stay with him.”

The Gary in question is Gary Curran, the owner of Greenmount House and the chairman of the Dingle Peninsula Tourism Alliance. He has been warning for a number of years about how the lack of accommodation threatened the availability of seasonal workers.

We meet on the last day of February, and his last day off until December 20th. Greenmount House will run smoothly this summer, because Curran and four family members, as well as their core team of staff, will put in long hours. This is the sense I get from many of the family-run businesses I encounter: they will work hard through the summer months and collapse with exhaustion in October. Every year, the days get longer and the margin for error gets tighter. “If you lose a staff member or somebody gets sick, you’re really in trouble,” Curran says.

The staff crisis is partly a reflection of population trends, he says. "The embedded population has gone down and down and down." Official estimates put the permanent population of Dingle at about 2,000 people. In summer "you're talking six, seven times that . . . The numbers of kids in school locally has declined. The staff that want to come here can't, because there's no housing. Your seasonal workers that might have come from Eastern Europe are not coming. And the flip side of that is that more tourists are arriving. Airbnb has exploded.

“I’d sometimes be questioning myself. Why the heck am I doing this? If I changed my product and switched it to Airbnb, where there is a fraction of the regulation, and left a set of keys at the door and dumbed down the product. . .”

He’s not serious, because he’s loyal to staff and his customers and passionate about the business, he says. “We’re open 44 years.” But then he adds: “If the day comes when you can’t provide the staff, you’re getting older, you’re getting tired and burnt out, you would have to question yourself. In 10 years’ time, will we still have the energy?”

The other issue for Dingle, and hospitality businesses everywhere, is that prices are going up. This is due to staffing costs, and rising energy and food prices, but some business owners are worried about a backlash from holidaymakers; what some call "the Joe Duffy factor". This is particularly an issue for a town where the cost of dining out is already at the upper end of the scale. During my stay, I paid €32 for a delicious rack of lamb in the gastro pub of a three-star hotel. The quality and service were excellent, but it's possible to see how prices could spiral fast if you're eating out as a family of five.

On the morning I meet him in his apartment over his restaurant, the Fish Box on Green Street, Micheál Flannery has just had news of another cost increase. The cost of cooking oil has gone up again, and is now nearly double what it was a year ago. The restaurant, which has been open three years, is very much a family affair. Flannery runs the business; his mother Deirdre is the head chef, and his brother Patrick is the skipper on the 25m family-owned trawler that catches the fish. The fish they serve “is no more than two or three hours out of the sea”, Micheál says with pride. His sister, uncle and father, a fisherman too, all work there too.

Last week, they paid the same price for 24,000 litres of fuel for the trawler as they paid for 38,000 litres last April. “We got 14,000 litres less. So the price of fish has gone up. And I don’t know where it’s going to stop. Everything is going up. Wages are going up. Is it going to be affordable for people to go out?”

On top of that, he is facing the same issue with staffing as everyone else. Even with so many Flannerys involved, this summer is going to require a lot of juggling. He has been advertising for a number of roles, on top of the 12 already working in the business, with alarmingly few responses so far. “We’re going to need maybe six or seven more staff, just to ensure we have a work-life balance.”

The restaurant currently offers a full sit-down service as well as a takeaway. If he can’t get staff, he may not be able to open both sections. “This year is going to be really difficult. I don’t know which is the best way to go – is it doing a day less, or doing a smaller team? We normally do a full pricing quarterly. Now, the way things are going, we’ll have to do it monthly.”

Businesses are seeing increases in the cost of “insurance, energy prices and all of the other food and drink cost increases. So there is very significant cost inflation. People aren’t worried about the top line but they are worried about the bottom line,” says Kelly.

Despite all the issues, there’s optimism in the sector and a sense that people are ready to travel again. A chunk of the staycation market that developed over the last two years will continue to holiday at home. “The real challenges are on the supply slide – in the staffing and skills shortage and the cost inflation.”

“Every other year, you had this sense people will show up,” says Flannery. “But last year, they didn’t. Now we’re kind of left with this void. The fear is that if tourists come here to Dingle, they may not get the service they expect, or the restaurant they want to go to may not be open.”

Jim McCarthy in Chart House restaurant is fully staffed for this year, having only had to recruit one new person, and bookings are flying in. But he’s worried too, about what the crisis might mean for the town’s reputation as a food destination. “We would have turned away probably 30 people last night. And they’re looking at you thinking, ‘Well, where are we going to go?’ It’s not good for Dingle. Here, we’ll be fine. But for Dingle, there’s a big question mark. Dingle has such a good name and such a good brand, people are coming with very high expectations.”

Jennifer O'Connell

Jennifer O'Connell

Jennifer O’Connell is a feature writer and opinion columnist with The Irish Times