Why Students are Refusing to Go Back to Hospitality, Post-Covid

Following on from our article last month about ‘Recruiting Young People To Your Hospitality Business Post-Covid’ we asked one of our current student interns for her thoughts on the sector. Here’s what she said:

A 21 year old university student, I have spent the past 5 years of my life working in hospitality, across a mixture of both big-name and small-town restaurants and pubs, often working in more than one at a time.

And I LOVED it. I loved the atmosphere; the regular customers; the team members I worked with…going to work was something that I enjoyed. So did all of my friends- almost everyone I knew happily worked a service job in a pub, restaurant or bar somewhere. Everyone wanted one too: every week, I’d get Snapchats from friends pestering me to get them a job in the restaurants I worked at. Seemingly, there weren’t enough spaces to go around.

But with one sweep of lockdown, everything changed. Naturally, like everybody else, I was devastated when the announcement came through on a cold Saturday night in October. I was at work at the time, and I felt the restaurant atmosphere change as concerned chatter passed from table to table.

Little did I realise the impact that Boris’ “4 week” lockdown announcement would have on my life; much less did I think about how it might affect the industry.

Immediately, thousands of us (including me) were sacked, as a means of avoiding the wage supplementation of the furlough scheme. But of course, as soon as the rain stopped, we all got the same overly-optimistic texts from managers, expecting us to come running back. To their shock, universally- we said no.

Despite lots of us being thrown aside, many hospitality workers were in fact properly furloughed, and yet still chose to leave the industry over lockdown. So, why is it that the hospitality sector is now struggling to get staff back into the workplace? Why is it that students, including myself, are point blank refusing to go back into hospitality? And what can the hospitality industry do to get us back?

1) Money Talks.
Even among the lucky furloughed-few, the wallet-pinch hit hospitality workers. Hard.With the majority earning a meagre minimum wage, the lack of tips made it difficult for the average worker to make ends meet. For me personally, tips regularly counted for up to 50% of my take-home pay, so had I not been sacked off, I STILL would have had to get another job.

Between struggling supermarkets, NHS Track and Trace, and government-backed Online Tutoring schemes, there were no shortage of industries desperately seeking students… Industries where the minimum wage was a thing of the past.

2) Goodbye Minimum Wage, Hello Worker’s Rights.
Whilst money certainly isn’t everything, the newfound realisation that PAYED, HOUR-LONG BREAKS exist, hit home for many students. Why on earth would we go back to an industry that supports maximum working, for minimum pay? Imagine not being forced to sit (in your own time) for the promise of a never-starting shift. And imagine not having to work 16 hours with no food. Or being forced to stay on for 3 hours because “your supervisor went home for their break”- even though it’s your mum’s birthday and you’d asked for it off months ago.

It only takes 21 days to form a habit- and in the months of enjoying other industries, former-hospitality workers got used to the “luxuries” that are regarded as standard across every other workplace (except maybe illegal sweatshops).

3) Students have realised their worth.
Being appreciated sure feels good. Once you’ve left the hospitality industry, you start to realise that the management isn’t supposed to scream, much less steal your tips.

How could I go back to the world of shouting chefs and manipulative supervisors now that I’ve joined the system of civil conversation and polite emails? I’d probably burst into tears again, like I did at 15, before the industry broke me in.

And it sure is nice to know that I am safe from abuse in my new role. The “customer is king” card is especially damaging when it comes to the overly “friendly” male customer. Shockingly, across all 6 of my hospitality roles, not one company stood up for me, despite numerous disturbing scenarios in each location. (Seriously, you would not BELIEVE some of the things my friends and I have endured, all in the name of “good service”)

4) Values have changed: mental wellbeing is NOT up for debate anymore.
With the devastating increase of mental health issues during the pandemic, alongside the government’s complete disregard of student welfare- students are angry. And they are no longer ready to compromise when it comes to their mental health. Gone are the days where they will tolerate never-ending, breakless shifts, shouty abuse and high-pressure, with little respect or remuneration.

5) We Tried Something Different- and Liked it.
The title speaks for itself. For many of us, the pandemic forced us to step out of our comfort zones and try something new. We have discovered new skills and found our place in “friendlier” industries. Many of us didn’t realise how toxic hospitality culture really was until we stepped out, and now, we are too comfortable to come back.

So, what should the hospitality industry do? It’s simple.

The industry needs reform. If you are a restaurant owner, reading this right now, the power to get students back on your side is in your hands. They care about company ethics; feeling valued; and making a difference. It’s all to do with morals really.

Pay your staff properly. Give them their breaks. Don’t try to use students because they don’t know any better. And protect them from predators, even if they’re the ones holding the wallets. Because we now know our value, and after the year we’ve all had, we aren’t prepared to compromise.