by Colin Campbell
DON Lawson, owner of the Johnny Foxes pub in Inverness, has called for government action to help the staffing crisis-hit Highland hospitality industry recover from “a perfect storm”.
He is demanding that the government help establish regional “hospitality academies” to woo young people into this vital part of the lucrative tourism sector.
The University of the Highlands and Islands is said to be very interested in assisting.
How would the curriculum work?
How about, start at seven in the morning and finish at midnight, with split shift sessions of tuition during the day, say 7am to 10am, then 3pm to 6pm, then maybe 9pm to 12pm, then go home and repeat for the next 10 days?
At least this arduous schedule would prepare entrants for what might be coming to them once they’ve qualified, so they could know what to expect in the real world.
And all at the minimum wage or a few pence above it.
This, admittedly, is a cynical view of what Mr Lawson is proposing.
But no one can tell me there isn’t a distinct element of reality to it. And no one can credibly deny that to a certain extent at least, that’s how a sizeable portion of the hospitality industry has operated up to now.
The workloads and conditions in many places, not to mention the pay, is very far removed from rather grand sounding “Academy” status.
Don Lawson may be sincere in his desire to change that. So may others in the industry.
The problem is they’ve left it a bit late.
For the past 10 or 15 years the hospitality industry has been able to rely on a never ending supply of Eastern Europeans who were prepared to take on pretty much any kind of work and accept any conditions because at the end of the week they picked up much more money than they could have earned at home.
But these golden days of a vast labour supply are over.
Now, because of both the virus and Brexit, tens of thousands of Poles and Romanians have gone home and aren’t coming back, even if they could get back, which in most cases given the new border restrictions which apply, is highly unlikely.
Hence the crescendo of concern and despair we’re hearing over the hospitality industry “staffing crisis”. These lamentations are backed up by the “Brexit disaster” brigade of politicians, the loudest naturally being in the SNP, who know nothing about hotels and restaurants other than how to eat out lavishly in them on expenses.
If they had to do a single day’s graft behind the scenes they’d have to take to their beds for a week to recover.
I don’t know how things are at Johnny Foxes. Quite possibly Don Lawson is a good enough boss and his staff quite like working there.
But elsewhere, I know, that satisfactory situation does not apply.
The luxury days of endless cheap foreign labour are over. All hoteliers and managers should have got that by now.
But something has to change. The hospitality industry can be a very tough and arduous place to work. Some like it. I know some people who have stayed loyally with hotels for years and are making a good career out of it. But I know others who have packed it in after a week.
Most jobs are demanding these days. Everyone has their gripes in some form or another. But for many, if was a choice between being run off their feet in a hotel or restaurant, and that is often the rule rather than the exception, or working on a supermarket checkout or doing something similar, I know which option most people would choose.
A spokeswoman for the UHI said: “The university offers a range of further and higher courses linked to the tourism sector, including hospitality management and professional cookery.
“We have a vital role to play through the Covid-19 pandemic recovery and following Brexit and we are always eager to engage and collaborate with industry partners to address the challenges and opportunities this brings to meet the local needs of our communities.
“Through partnership working with local business our courses help our students to gain employment at many levels within the hospitality sector, providing opportunities for school leavers, those returning to education and those looking for a career change.”
This quite frankly is bland waffle and tripe, what you might expect from someone sitting comfortably behind a desk at the UHI. They wouldn’t be quite so comfortable after a week working amid the graft and grind and stress and pressure – not to mention constant unsocial hours – in much of the hospitality industry.
Maybe Don Lawson’s “Academies” proposal will emerge as something that is viable, constructive and serious. The immediate public response to his suggestion has been – “pay higher wages”.
That’d be a start. Where the hospitality industry goes after that only those setting the agenda can decide. But unless there is widespread willingness to offer better pay, hours and working conditions, it’s very difficult to see how the “staffing crisis” we are hearing so much about these days is going to be resolved any time soon.