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Hospitality and Tourism

The Qualification Conundrum

Report Segment: What Employers Seek

Courses required for legislation purposes include food safety and licensed premises training. In terms of value to employers, there is no question that these are useful courses – without them one could be breaking the law.

There are other courses which provide essential underpinning knowledge and key skills for work. These food skills can be broken down into elementary catering principles; intermediate cookery skills; ‘domestic’ food craft courses (e.g. for non-career people simply interested in cooking); and professional chef skills.

Whilst many of these courses will be of absolute relevance to employers, they are, at the end of the day, only qualifications. They don’t guarantee that a person presenting her certificate will have the right attitude or even the aptitude to work in a busy, dynamic kitchen. If all of the chef challenge programmes have shown anything other than good entertainment, it is that qualifications count for little. Experience, aptitude, attitude, flair and flexibility are the attributes employers are looking for. One might ask, why pick on the hospitality and tourism sector? Isn’t this same mismatch (between the qualification obtained and the person’s suitability for work) the same in any other sector. Unfortunately, the hospitality and tourism sector suffers from this divergence more than most other industries, for several reasons. First, there is plenty of alternative (non qualified) labour for employers to choose from. Apart from the legislative training requirements (which can be handled on the job) there is little in the sector which demands a qualification. Unlike engineering or computer science, hospitality jobs often require no prior learning. A willingness to be helpful, and an instinct for customer care is probably worth more to a hospitality employer than anything else. Even in the kitchens, positive attitude, aptitude and a willingness to learn will frequently be seen as the most important attributes.

So the mismatch in hospitality and tourism is more evident because broadly speaking: (a) there is no need for a minimum skills base and; (b) non qualified people are available for work (e.g. gap year students or those needing part-time work; EU migrant labour; English speaking travellers e.g. from Australia, New Zealand or South Africa). This means that employers don’t have to simply take the students from the local college to fill their vacancies – they can recruit unqualified labour with the right attributes: attitude, aptitude and flexibility. This may sound like a defence for ‘bad old’ employment practices – where split shifts, long hours, low pay and poor conditions typified work in the sector. In fact, hospitality businesses have been steadily improving their terms and conditions of employment over the last couple of decades. However the sector does need flexible, customer friendly staff – and if local students completing their hospitality courses can’t offer that as a minimum, they may as well work either in another sector altogether, or move towards the more “institutional” hospitality type jobs (e.g. contract catering) where competition from the unqualified labour market is weaker and customer care standards possibly slacker than the tourism market.

The Edge Hotel School in Essex promises to deliver a new kind of learning from Wivenhoe House which is being extensively restored. The £10 million development will offer “Georgian and Victorian finery” to hotel guests. Managed and staffed entirely by students, and supervised by industry professionals, the project is the first of its kind in the UK. It will be certainly be interesting to observe its progress and to look for potential alliances in New Anglia, either spinning out the Edge School idea on a franchise basis or innovating to create something entirely new.

Why is it that a mismatch appears to exist between what training is offered by colleges and universities and what training employers feel they need for their workforce? First of all it is important to note that the hospitality and tourism industry is extremely broad – covering many sub-sectors. The BHA notes that the hospitality economy alone includes: hotels and related services (including camping grounds and other accommodation); restaurants and related services (including pubs, cafes, takeaway food shops, licensed clubs and motorway service areas; catering (including contract catering to both private and public sector clients, also including in-house catering across non-hospitality direct sectors such as health and education); and event management (including conference and exhibition organisers). Temporary agency employment across these sub-sectors is also an important labour market all on its own especially owing to the high labour turnover in these sectors, and the variable demand for staff at different times in the year.

So colleges and universities are unlikely to match all employers needs across all sub-sectors. But is it the case that the plethora of hospitality and tourism courses only serve the lowest common denominator – basic, generic skills, without really tackling the aptitude and attitude requirements so treasured by high quality establishments in the industry?

Hospitality and tourism is unique among sectors for this complete mismatch between what some employers need and what college and universities provide. To some extent this is because of the nature of service delivery.