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'Perfect storm' of Brexit and coronavirus pandemic results in dire shortage of hospitality staff in the Highlands

By Val Sweeney

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The Fig and Thistle in Stephens Brae, Inverness, is among the hospitality firms looking for staff.
The Fig and Thistle in Stephens Brae, Inverness, is among the hospitality firms looking for staff.

Hospitality firms are facing a recruitment crisis due to the "perfect storm" of Brexit and the pandemic.

Some furloughed staff have opted for a career change and EU workers, who were the bedrock of the sector before the pandemic, are finding it difficult to come back to the UK due to post-Brexit red tape, according to industry leaders.

Willie Cameron of the Cobbs Group, which owns a number of Highland businesses including hotels, said there was a "dire shortage of staff" across Scotland.

"It’s very, very serious," he added.

"A number of factors have helped create the problem, one of which is Brexit and the rules and regulations on foreign and EU labour coming into the country.

"A lot of the European labour went home because a lot of them were paid off in March 2020 with the first Covid lockdown, so that is another thing."

Mr Cameron admitted a lot of people previously working in the hospitality trade were looking for a better quality of life after furlough and did not want to return to a lifestyle of working 50-60 hours a week, often with late-night finishes.

He called the overlap of Covid-19 with Brexit "the perfect storm" and said it was also hitting industry supply chains, with track and trace "pinging" not helping either.

"It is something we will have to get through," he said.

"It is historical – we have not been training up enough people for the hospitality industry in the years gone by. The University of the Highlands and Islands should have a proper international school [for hospitality] based here that would be both income-generating and provide a service for recruitment."

Little Italy in Stephens Brae, Inverness, is advertising for a chef.
Little Italy in Stephens Brae, Inverness, is advertising for a chef.

David Richardson, the Federation of Small Businesses’ area development manager, said a recent survey of hospitality firms showed 45 per cent were short-staffed a month or so after reopening – and last week 35 per cent of all types of Highland businesses were still struggling.

He said: "Short-staffed businesses have either struggled on as best they can, or they have been forced to reduce opening hours, the range of services that they provide, or both.

"And while the Highlands is extremely fortunate to be judged a world-class holiday destination – a place where world-class scenery, natural and cultural heritage and activities are matched by world-class businesses – it all goes wrong if services and customer care deteriorate due to staff shortages. Great value for money cannot exist in these circumstances.

"We really must make it as easy as possible for businesses to attract the staff they need.

"Locally, public money should be invested in the provision of additional staff accommodation and improved public transport to help people get to and from work while nationally, the UK government should adopt the Migration Advisory Committee’s 2020 recommendation and pilot a remote visa for the Highlands and Islands Enterprise area to enable more overseas workers to come here."

Staff are being sought by The Kings Highway in Church Street, Inverness.
Staff are being sought by The Kings Highway in Church Street, Inverness.

Inverness-based economist Tony Mackay said hospitality businesses face difficulties in finding local workers willing to accept wage levels that are attractive to people from overseas.

"Eastern Europeans were happy to work in Inverness and elsewhere in the Highlands because the wages were much higher than in their own countries," he said.

"An obvious economic consequence [of the loss of eastern European staff] is that the wages must increase significantly.

"That will have knock-on implications for profitability and the number of jobs."

Scott Murray, managing director of Cru Holdings which runs a number of Inverness bars and restaurants, said: "If we don’t do something to try and change the situation it could well turn into a crisis.

"The important thing is that operators and employers act immediately to try and prevent this happening."

Stewart Nicol, chief executive of Inverness Chamber of Commerce, said his organisation was "massively aware" of the issue.

"We have been doing a lot of work through the Developing the Young Workforce programme and they have done a lot of work on hospitality over the years," he said.

"So prior to Covid we were really strongly promoting it as a sector for our region’s young people as a really meaningful career."

What's YOUR experience in trying to hire staff – or find work in this sector? Email hector.mackenzie@hnmedia.co.uk

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