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Facing up to the skills shortage

The Irish hospitality industry has been enjoying very healthy growth but is now running into a problem with attracting and keeping skilled staff

“You could do short courses in waiting, bar tending and so on and they were very valuable. That’s contributing to the skills shortages faced by the industry now.” Photograph: iStock

“You could do short courses in waiting, bar tending and so on and they were very valuable. That’s contributing to the skills shortages faced by the industry now.” Photograph: iStock

 

According to the Government’s Hospitality Skills Oversight Group, the hospitality sector is one of the largest employers in the Irish economy, employing more than 177,000 people in more than 18,300 businesses in 2018, up from 148,000 in 2016. In terms of overall economic activity, the accommodation and food services sector accounts for about €5 billion of total gross value added in the Irish economy.

The continuing growth of such a large and labour-intensive industry is naturally creating challenges when it comes to recruitment and retention of staff. “There are skills shortages across the whole industry,” says Excel Recruitment director Shane Mclave. “There has been a lot of media coverage in relation to the shortage of chefs and last year we did finally get them included on the critical skills list for work permits.”

This enables the industry to recruit qualified chefs from outside the EU and European Economic Area, but it is by no means a complete solution. “It only works to a degree,”says Mclave. “Chefs are in high demand throughout the world and they are very fast-moving when they decide to change job. The average time to get a work permit through the department is 12 weeks. That means the time to hire could be anything up to six months. That’s not quick enough.

“Also, if a small restaurant or individual hotel has not applied for a work permit before, they can run into difficulties,” he says. “We have gone out to Asia for the past two years and hired people there to work for us. That has given us the experience and knowledge to be able to do it for others.”

He laments the abolition of CERT, the State hospitality industry training body, a number of years ago. “They got rid of it and they didn’t replace it with anything,” he says. “CERT used to train people in all of the basic skills required by the industry. You could do short courses in waiting, bar tending and so on and they were very valuable. That’s contributing to the skills shortages faced by the industry now.”

Restaurants Association of Ireland chief executive Adrian Cummins agrees, describing the closure of CERT as a “disaster”.

“Imagine if they closed down Teagasc, ” he says. “You’d have thousands of farmers protesting in Kildare Street. The buck doesn’t stop with anyone anymore when it comes to hospitality industry training. We need a dedicated agency with responsibility for training for the industry. Solas is not working when it comes to apprenticeships. Frankly, it’s failing when it comes to the hospitality industry. Solas doesn’t have the expertise and we want a body like CERT to be brought back.”

That would only be part of the solution, however. “The Department of Transport and Tourism says it wants to create 150,000 jobs in the industry over the coming years,” says Cummins. “There isn’t 150,000 people in Ireland or the EU to fill those jobs. We need to do what we did back in the 1990s and attract people in from outside of Europe. The people just aren’t here and haven’t been for the past seven years.”

And with the economy nearing full employment, the situation is only likely to deteriorate further. “There needs to be a wake-up call for everyone involved,” he adds. “We have done everything in our power to find people for the industry and they just aren’t there. The construction boom is now back as well. There are 136 cranes in Dublin alone and that just shows the volume of jobs that industry is creating. The hospitality sector has to compete with construction and other industries when it is trying to attract people in.”

‘Everyone is frustrated’

Micheline Corr, director of hospitality industry recruitment consultants The Firm, believes the skills shortage is causing difficulties for everyone involved. “It’s strange, but in the face of a lot of choice for candidates, everyone is frustrated,” she says. “There are tons of jobs out there but jobseekers are frustrated by a lack of response from employers. They don’t even acknowledge applications by email, in some cases. On the other hand, employers are frustrated by the poor level of research being carried out by candidates. Lots of people apply for jobs they are not qualified to do or even legally entitled to do. What’s happening now is bad news for both sides.”

She also notes a new phenomenon which she terms “job ghosting”. This is where a candidate progresses quite far along the recruitment process, sometimes even as far as receiving a firm offer, and then disappears. “Instead of ’fessing up and saying they’ve had second thoughts or a better offer, they just cease contact,” she says. “That’s very bad, as the employer has to start the process again and other candidates will have their credibility called into question because of this poor behaviour.”

Her advice to employers struggling to attract talent in the current climate is to take a look at themselves first. “They should look at their own social media brand and see how they are viewed as an employer,” says Corr. “That’s what people do when they are looking for jobs. They look at what other people have said about the employer before applying. They also need to look at their own culture – is it a place where people like to work?”

Employers should look at what they are offering beyond money. “The Adare Manor and a number of other hotels are now offering staff accommodation and that’s a big help,” she points out. “Corporate social responsibility is also important to younger job candidates. Work-life balance is another issue. One hotel we deal with has changed the hours for accommodation staff to match school hours so they can get their kids off to school before work and be home before they finish school.”

Excel Recruitment is taking direct action to address the skills shortages in certain areas, according to Shane Mclave. “If you look at what’s happening in an area like coffee,” he says. “People are becoming more and more fussy about it and they won’t accept instant or machine coffee. On the other hand, cafes and restaurants are struggling to find the baristas to make the flat whites and mochaccinos for them. There is a certain amount of skill involved and you can’t just learn it in an hour in a busy cafe or restaurant kitchen.”

Excel’s solution was to train the baristas themselves. “We set up the Irish Barista Academy here in our training centre in Capel Street in Dublin,” he says. “During the eight-hour course, we go through everything from bean to cup. We take in everything from grinding the beans, to storing them and making the drinks and go through what can go wrong and how to get it right. People who do the course have a lot more confidence when they go out to the workplace. We also do event staff and other training here to help our clients find the people with the skills they need.”