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How do we make hospitality sexy as a career?

Updated: Feb 5, 2019

Brexit is looming, recruitment is challenging – and it’s going to get worse. We need to get better at promoting hospitality as a career to attract more young people. Twitter fans will have read or been part of the growing conversation in recent weeks. A considerable hospitality community is using the platform to debate and discuss industry issues.

There are several key opinions on how we can make a difference to how our beloved industry is perceived. Many lean on the idea government needs to do something but I’m not convinced this is a government priority. While I understand the sector’s outcry about hospitality being labelled “low skilled” – with the government’s continued use of the phrase when speaking about our sector not helping – my feeling is we should be doing far more to help ourselves.

Speaking at schools is not the answer

Many people seemed infatuated with speaking at schools to promote the virtues of hospitality from a young age. This strategy is riddled with holes. Firstly, you assume schools are giving active career guidance – several friends are secondary school teachers and they tell me this isn’t always the case. There are limited slots available for outside speakers to visit schools, with much of this time taken by universities. When industry speakers come in, it’s often to cover a specific subject such as business studies that may only be attended by a small group of high achievers.

The less easy pill to swallow is many teachers don’t want to encourage a career in hospitality. It’s not a career they know much about but the perception is of low skill and low wages, as is traditionally the case. They are actively encouraged to get students into university and it is a KPI for many sixth forms. What doesn’t help, of course, is a lack of cookery, customer service or vocational hospitality training at schools.

If we want to start adding value at school age that doesn’t necessarily mean actively promoting hospitality in schools. What it can be is actively championing better access to vocational training options at years ten and 11 and at sixth forms, as well as working with apprenticeship providers to offer engaging and attractive apprenticeships. We should also encourage government to bring back kitchens at schools and get them to teach life skills that include cookery.

Influencing the influencers

We should actively target and educate teachers through campaigning, as they will have a massive influence. Given many who enter our sector aren’t academic high-achievers, it seems obvious they are going to be particularly influenced by a teacher so we need to work with them.

Speak to any teenager and most will spend hours watching their favourite YouTuber and awaiting the latest Instagram story from a social influencer. We should be co-ordinating sector-wide campaigns with respected influencers to shine the light on brilliant careers in our sector and create our own influencers from some of the fantastic young talent working in our businesses. Let’s stop putting 30-something business owners forward as the sector’s cover guys and girls – they are ancient to a teen. We need teenagers or those in their early 20s who are vibrant and communicative.

Looking further up the funnel

After leaving university, only half of all UK graduates work in a field that relates to their degree. According to research published in the Daily Telegraph in 2014, 96% had switched careers by the time they turned 24 – eye-opening statistics you’ll agree. What it does highlight is we have an opportunity to influence students right through their university career. Many of the best people I know started working in the sector while studying for a degree in a completely different area.

Our sector is brimming with college and university-age students. Does your business have proper mechanisms and strategies in place to encourage these people to stay and turn it into a career? In businesses I’ve been involved with, time and again I’ve watched bright, inspired people who love their job go off to pursue a career after university in another field, only to return later.

Others have told me they would have stayed if they’d known there were bigger opportunities on offer. We often over-rely on site-level managers to recognise and harness talented people. In my experience, the weekend-working students are seen merely as extra help. They might not receive proper one-to-ones or communication about career paths and may be left believing the only career in our sector is front of house with progression stopping at general manager.

The opportunity is there to actively engage with students on a wider business level. Let them understand the opportunities and career pathways available. Offer graduate training schemes, conversion training or post-graduate level qualification sponsorship for hospitality-related courses.

Build an employer brand that inspires the young

I’ve had two students opt to spend some time at Think Hospitality during the past few months. One was 14 and on work experience from school, the other at sixth form. I asked them to review some of our sector’s biggest employers and most well-known brands on how they promote careers. The students suggested the promotions were way off the mark and “boring”. Here are some tips based on their feedback on what employers can do to improve this:

Have a website: It’s amazing out of the brands we looked at how many had no careers section on their website. An equal amount included one but it was hard to find. Invest in promoting your business as a great place to work. You should also include why hospitality is a great career, not only your business – you are selling the sector first, your business second.

Use more video: “We want to see what we’ll be doing in our jobs, we want to see people like us and hear from them.” This is a must – teenagers don’t like to read – even the informational sections should be turned into videos, as well as case studies.

Look beyond your own website: “I’ve searched these companies on YouTube and Instagram and only see ads, nothing about working with them.” Think beyond your own website, look at social channels too. One challenge was companies used their corporate identity for careers and the teenagers didn’t understand. Your brand name needs to lead.

The uniforms are boring: “I always wonder why restaurants don’t let their staff wear things they like instead of black. I like to express myself and feel I wouldn’t be allowed to if I worked in hospitality.” This is fascinating as our sector tends to include many people who like to express themselves but they are often stuffed into regimented uniforms. Giving team members ways to express themselves seems a good option. One large casual dining brand did this to great effect a few years ago.

Why does everyone have tattoos? “All the cool brands feature staff with tattoos on their photos, I don’t want a tattoo.” In contrast to the last point, it feels like many have gone down the route of using more “alternative” team members in employer branding. It’s important to have a good range of people to avoid putting others off.

Trial shifts for them, not you: “I’d like to see whether it’s something I’d like to do and be good at.” The idea of being able to give a career a go is interesting and both students were nervous about whether they could carry out certain tasks.

Simple things such as carrying plates or chopping vegetables were things they’d never done before. We talked to them about trial shifts and open days but both students thought it would be great to try things in real life before being interviewed. This plays into the love of experiences among generations Y and Z. It is an interesting concept to use off periods for potential staff to “give it a go”. 

First published in Propel Friday opinion.


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