Older workers can solve the hospitality sector’s employment crisis

older workers in hospitality

The UK’s hospitality sector is suffering from an ongoing employment crisis. Staff vacancies are now a staggering 48% higher than before Covid, with many foreign workers having left the country in recent years. To compound this issue, new laws are set to affect up to 95% of hospitality migrant workers applying to work in the UK, which will further exacerbate this shortage. The hospitality sector needs to think laterally to find a long-term solution to this quandary and I believe the answer lies in recruiting older workers. 

Struggling to recruit

Vacancies in the hospitality sector rose to approximately 112,000 at the close of 2023, which is a significant gap to fill. However, by attracting older workers into hospitality roles, encouraging age diversity in the workplace and addressing the barriers that older workers face, a number of problems could be resolved. For instance, this approach has the potential to provide access to a valuable, sustainable resource of employees, to bring experienced skilled workers into the industry, and to boost UK employment figures whilst supporting the economy.

Calculating the opportunity

More than 165,000 workers aged over 50 have joined the hospitality sector during the last three years, which means that over 50-year-olds now comprise one-third of the workforce, according to the Office for National Statistics. What’s more, we know this age group has significant appetite to work in hospitality; in a survey by Rest Less, 70% of over-50s said they would consider a hospitality career

The numbers are compelling: there are three million unemployed people aged over 50 in the UK, presenting a vast – and willing – pool of potential employees to solve the sector’s employment shortage. 

The question is whether hospitality businesses have the foresight to seize this opportunity and to create a conducive work environment that will enable this age group to share their skills whilst ensuring their employment needs are being met. 

Drawing on experience

Despite having decades of valuable experience, over 50s workers still face employment barriers. There is a prevailing misconception that workers in this age group may be less adaptable, less productive, less likely to remain in the role for an extended period of time and more susceptible to health issues. 

Instead, I’d argue that these employees bring years of knowledge and experience, are able to stay calm under pressure and are well-equipped to be excellent problem-solvers. They also tend to have a strong work ethic, fewer responsibilities outside of work and come from a generation where building a long-term career with an employer was the norm. What’s more, they are able to use their experience to guide and upskill younger staff members and provide a calm, mentoring presence.

Fostering a supportive environment 

To create an environment that meets the needs of both employers and employees in this age group, businesses need to ensure that their employment policies are age-neutral and that they are fostering a diverse, age-inclusive work culture. One way to do this is to commission an age equity audit to review internal and external policies and processes – eliminating any age-related biases. Inclusive orientation and onboarding procedures are also key, as is delivering supportive, ongoing training – because learning (for all) is a lifelong process.

In addition, ‘returnership’ programmes provide a critical opportunity to encourage and bring more older workers into the sector. The Government laid the foundations for this in 2023, offering a raft of tools and government-funded programmes to help support returners to work. Amazon and National Highways have both been prominent ‘returnership’ advocates via their own programmes and there’s significant scope for hospitality businesses to follow suit. 

To reinforce this, marketing can play a key role in generating positive momentum – not only through promoting these programmes but also through advertising opportunities appropriately in order to attract this age group. Ageist terminology can inadvertently creep into job advertisements and deter people from applying so it’s important to avoid this – not least because employers who use age-related terminology could expose themselves to claims of age discrimination. Using HR consultants to draft appealing advertisements and advise on how to conduct inclusive job interviews can be a useful resource for companies that want to address this.

Thinking outside of the box

Over-50s workers offer a valuable, long-term solution to the hospitality sector’s vacancy shortage – but they are far more than just a solution. These employees bring advanced customer experience skills, gravitas, a strong work ethic, business knowledge and problem-solving skills while helping create a more diverse workplace culture. It is up to businesses to seize the opportunities to recruit these workers and to create inclusive policies and workplace environments to retain them.

Contributor: Penny Brown, MD of Burgh Island Hotel