The reopening is in full swing everywhere – but many find they can’t yet go full throttle. As a recent survey by DEHOGA (German Hotel and Restaurant Association) showed, nearly 30% of the 5,640 businesses surveyed are not currently able to open. The reason: staffing problems.
Before the pandemic, the hospitality industry was a major economic driver and also a key employer. In Germany alone, the industry generated €65.1 billion in sales in 2018. That same year, the sector employed 1.8 million people. With the steep drop in sales resulting from coronavirus, employment likewise went down. Restaurateurs had to put their employees on short-time work or even let them go; many were forced to retrain or move into new fields in order to stay afloat. For all these reasons, the reopening is getting off to a somewhat rocky start, as the DEHOGA survey also confirmed when the results came out in early June.
‘The staffing situation is equally critical in all areas of the industry,’ says Götz Braake, Head of Gastro Consulting at METRO Germany, as he looks back over the past months. But the group hit hardest by the pandemic were caterers, who rely particularly heavily on seasonal workers and people working under contracts known as ‘mini-jobs’ with very few hours. ‘People with mini-jobs are not eligible for a subsidised short-time arrangement, so those workers naturally looked around for other sources of income,’ he says. In other words, those workers are gone. The staffing situation was already difficult long before the first lockdown; in fact, trained employees have been scarce for quite some time. That is partly due to the realities in the industry sector: below-average pay in some cases, unattractive work schedules and the physical strain are turn-offs to many candidates.
Coronavirus and the hospitality industry: jobs lost all over the world
The number of people around the globe who have left the hospitality industry – whether voluntarily or not – since the onset of the pandemic is reflected in dramatic statistics in Europe and elsewhere. In the US, for example, pandemic-related closures in spring 2020 cost the restaurant industry a whopping 5.9 million jobs. Employment numbers went down to 1980s levels in the space of 6 weeks. In Europe, too, the number of at-risk jobs in hospitality and tourism has remained high since the pandemic started. In Spain, for instance, many employers temporarily suspended their operations due to the crisis: 75% applied for short-time work, 8.61% for state subsidies and 3.88% for early pensions for some employees. Statistics in Poland show that 5,300 people have lost their jobs since the pandemic hit. In Norway, around 5.8% of employees in the service sector have been affected.
In Germany, the numbers are relatively high for the hospitality industry due to hard lockdowns. The figures in bar sales are particularly significant, with nearly 40% of employees in the country losing their jobs. Hotels, inns and guest houses downsized 17.8% of their personnel in the same period from March 2020 to January 2021. In total, employment shrank by nearly 20% in the hospitality industry compared with the previous year.
Despite Covid-19: desperately seeking young talent!
For some restaurant operators, spur-of-the-moment retraining was the only way they could somehow keep their business afloat during the lockdown. For many, that meant going from head chef to coronavirus tester overnight. Restaurants became walk-in test centres. Of course, that only works in a limited number of cases and is not a long-term solution. Braake says, ‘The coronavirus crisis with its immediate effects on restaurant businesses meant that the already chronic lack of trained staff went from bad to worse. Many employees moved into other sectors and their return is uncertain.’
The industry was already suffering under the lack of trained staff even before the pandemic. That was brought to light in a DEHOGA economic survey conducted in autumn 2019. One of the issues the association noted in it is the fact that for about 67% of businesses, hiring qualified personnel is their biggest problem. This was also confirmed by longtime star and TV chef Peter Scharff. An independent business operator since 2007, he runs a cooking school and event venue and also offers catering and consulting services throughout Germany. Scharff speaks from experience. ‘The hospitality industry is brutal – and that didn’t start with the pandemic. You work very hard, often for low pay, so the prospects for young people in particular are not good enough.’ In his view, many trainees can’t handle the work schedules and systems long-term, and sooner or later they look for another option. ‘But we need – the industry needs – young talent desperately. Creative people who will enjoy helping to shape tomorrow’s hospitality industry,’ Scharff says.
They are out there – the ones who are persevering. Despite a March 2021 DEHOGA survey of 6,500 respondents, in which 25% of the restaurateurs surveyed said they are considering giving up their business, many still have hope and the will to keep their enterprise running. But to do that, they need staff. In addition, the demand for high-quality, sustainably produced gastronomy offerings is on the rise, as Braake reports. ‘On the whole, there is still an upswing. That’s because customers are more conscious about what they consume and are willing to pay a fair price for that. That goes for everything from between-meal snacks all the way to premium banquets.’ So, particularly in terms of sustainability, there is plenty of scope to shape tomorrow’s hospitality industry. What is lacking are the people to breathe life into it and shape it creatively now, as things are reopening.
Time for change – but how?
The answer is to offer attractive career perspectives, according to chef Scharff. Mentorship is the key, he says: anyone who trains aspiring chefs needs to be aware of his or her position as a role model and all the responsibility that entails. ‘To keep the next generation, you have to take young people by the hand and be willing to invest time and money, sharing visions while at the same time giving them space to be creative.’ Braake, the consultant, agrees that it takes more than traditional training. ‘As an employer, I have to consider how I can best meet my employees’ needs. To do that, I should examine processes in the company and involve my employees in finding solutions.’ Making the industry more attractive in the medium term calls for ‘joint efforts on the part of politicians and employers in terms of higher salaries, optimising training and pointing to career perspectives,’ Braake says. After all, as he notes, a good work-life balance and professional development are very important to millennials. ‘That’s where our industry sector can score points with flexible working time models.’ Restaurateurs also need to be clear about their position – and about how they want to be perceived as employers.