The generation shift

Article by Peter Martin for Eat Out Magazine 09/01/17

The restaurant and pub market has an image problem – and the truth is the industry still needs to work harder to convince people that it is a great place to work and build a career.

Figures from CGA’s BrandTrack consumer research, from as recently as October, show that less than a quarter (24%) of the British public would recommend the hospitality industry as a career or even part-time employment. This compares with a third (34%) who are outright negative and would not recommend it. 

The rest (42%) don’t know—suggesting a widespread uncertainty or lack of understanding about the industry and its opportunities.

The image of a low-skill, low-pay, long-hours culture sadly still persists in many quarters. Even parts of government seem to think that waiting is an unskilled job

It’s not through lack of effort on the industry’s part, though. The Perceptions Group in the pub and bar arena and the Big Conversation in hotels and restaurants are just two well-supported and imaginative initiatives to tackle the issue particularly among young people – and the work continues. But it’s a long haul.

However, it has to be said that the sector doesn’t always help itself. Just when we hoped media scandals around tipping and minimum wage were things of the past, first Le Gavroche and then Harrods hit the headlines just before Christmas over distribution of tips and service charges – two organisations that really should know better. The Harrods dispute is still rumbling on.

All employers in this business need to take a close look again at their practices to see not just how fair they are for their teams, but how they are going play with the public. The sector has to be squeaky clean.

But there is better news – and it involves the younger generation. That same CGA BrandTrack research found that younger people are more likely to recommend hospitality as a place to work than older ones. Among those aged 18 to 24, a third (33%) would do so, in contrast to less than a fifth (19%) of those aged 45 to 54. This suggests attitudes are changing across the generations, if only slowly. 

People living in cities, where hospitality naturally has the highest concentration and profile, are also more likely to recommend it. In London, 34% of the general population say they would recommend a hospitality career, making it the only part of the country where more have a positive rather than negative view of working in the industry.

So what do we have? Though far from overwhelming, the most positive views of the sector are in areas where hospitality is most prevalent, and one might say progressive, and among those most likely already to be working in it and who the industry also wants to recruit, the young.

It’s that enthusiasm that needs to be harnessed – and isn’t the solution surely not just about putting young faces centre stage in recruitment campaigns but getting them actively involved in creating those messages and becoming true advocates for the sector? It’s about listening to them, giving them responsibility and incentives, using their media to bring in others like them? Pret a Manger has always had a good recruitment reputation and that’s the company that first passed down hiring decisions to front-line teams.

The other truth about pubs and restaurants is that talented individuals can progress rapidly up the chain. Where else can you find a 20-something as a general manger with responsibility for a £1 million plus operation – and with a salary that most teachers would envy?

Perhaps, it’s time we oldies gave that generation more space and trust in promoting the sector, just as we do in running our businesses? If we want to speed things up, perhaps we need to be more radical?

When it comes to tracking negativity about pubs and restaurant jobs, the generation gradient is stark. Old people don’t get it, so should we waste time trying to change their minds when that effort could be better spend on enthusing the under 25s? The older generation my just be like the ‘flat earth’ believers. They never changed their minds, but they are not around now.

Although parents have an undoubted influence on their off-spring’s career decisions, peer persuasion shouldn’t be under estimated either. The one area where there might be room for mind-changing, however, is among the sizable 40% or so of the public, and in particular men, who don’t currently have a view.

It looks like being a long, hard haul before hospitality careers are automatic first choices, but there’s plenty to work on.

This article first appeared in the February 2017 edition of Eat Out magazine.