The real challenge of recruitment post COVID

Finding quality candidates for hospitality and brewing has never been easy, and it has been made even more difficult by COVID-19, and soon, the end of JobKeeper payments.

Hospitality, typically casual work with lower average wages and high proportions of younger people and visa holders, was hit hard in the COVID-19 pandemic as venues closed and two-thirds of workers lost their jobs. While venues have opened up again, COVID-19 restrictions and rolling lockdowns across the country continue to hurt the industry.

Brewing production and packaging jobs meanwhile require a very specific set of skills, and the period was marked by the reluctance of those in secure positions to move, meaning that recruitment processes all but ground to a halt. In fac, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, beverage manufacturing jobs declined 5 per cent in December compared to February 2020.

“People are changing roles within hospitality but many have left,” according to Sylvi Elix at Frontline Recruitment.

“Some because they are ready for change whilst others have not appreciated the manner in which employers handled COVID, stepping staff down, reduced days and pay but with an expectation that one continued to work effectively without pay. Loss of motivation, loss of worthiness and an overall feeling of disappointment and not being valued.”

She explained there had been a shift away from the hospitality sector, with people retraining and moving industries.

“It has made individuals restless and the need for job security more crucial than ever given the impact COVID has had on the hospitality industry and to people’s lives.”

The casual nature of hospitality work, JobKeeper and the reticence of people in solid brewing positions to move roles in the middle of a pandemic severely affected recruitment in 2020.

Alex Dever, people and culture director at Brick Lane Brewing, said that during COVID, the focus of the brewery and many other businesses was supporting existing staff, and they put a hold on recruitment of vacant roles over the period.

“Production remained strong through the period and we redeployed some team members from our sales, marketing and other roles temporarily into production,” she said.

“As things opened up again towards the end of last year, we recommenced recruitment for vacancies, however, our challenge has been that many other businesses were also recruiting during that period as the industry reopened, causing a huge increase in vacant roles being concurrently advertised, so many businesses were all-out recruiting for similar roles at the same time.”

It seems that as we emerge from the pandemic period, it will not be business as usual, but it will not be all bad either.

JobKeeper and recruitment

At the end of January, the hopes of the industry for ‘HospoKeeper’ to replace the JobKeeper payments due to end on 28th March were dashed when the government refused to commit to the plans from the Restaurant and Catering Association.

The state of the industry following the end of JobKeeper is a “hot topic” for the industry according to Elix, but the reality of the situation will be difficult to ascertain.

“There is talk of hope that individuals’ availability will change for the better as supporting funds end,” she said.

Brick Lane’s Alex Dever said that while JobKeeper was invaluable for some businesses in the industry, it was always only temporary. Thankfully the brewing industry proved to be robust.

“The challenge with any temporary benefit is ensuring that the business model can continue to thrive beyond the benefit,” she said.

“I think our industry has been great at adapting and taking on new revenue streams – such as direct to consumer, shift to packaged product and more local ranging through the major banners. Hopefully, this means there will be minimal impact when JobKeeper finishes.”

Production volumes seem to be equal or even above pre-COVID levels, but this means also that production and sales roles remain tight, she said.

Caution in the market

While brewing and sales roles may be more secure as we emerge from the worst of the pandemic, the general feeling with hospitality was uncertainty.

“Speaking with colleagues in the industry, hospitality has been particularly difficult to source available staff for, particularly casual staff,” Dever said.

“A combination of high demand across the hospitality industry, a reduction in people on working holiday visas who would typically be attracted to these roles, and the impact of JobKeeper on candidate sentiment, has meant an immediate shortage of staff across the hospitality industry in general.”

Indeed new breweries such as WA’s Shelter Brewing Co. have been undertaking recruitment drives to enable them to fill roles, which perhaps would have been less tricky in times when working holiday visas brought more casual staff in – an issue particularly for breweries in areas heavily reliant on tourism.

“More broadly, the impact of COVID on candidate mindset has meant that potential candidates are much more cautious in leaving their current employer as job security and stability is seen by many as the main priority with so much uncertainty across the job market, particularly in Victoria,” said Dever.

However, she said that in brewing production the jobs market will remain strong.

“The market for people with brewing operations experience across all areas of production, I believe has been strong and will continue to be strong as businesses compete to bring on and retain great talent,” she said.

Future outlook

Elix said that there was a “long road to recovery” with people remaining cautious about going out or travelling as vaccines slowly rollout. This has been felt particularly on the hospitality side, with the regional and city-wide lockdowns continuing whenever there is a hotspot.

“The air of uncertainty raises every time there is word of new cases and/or shutdowns. It is a feeling in the pit of one’s stomach that just will not go away,” she said.

“Whilst some businesses were able to see this as an opportunity, and were able to diversify and do very well out of it, others did not have the right set up or the running costs alone [were too high], meant it simply wasn’t feasible to open.

“The harsh reality of city-wide lockdowns is business closures and loss of jobs. The financial impact is unfathomable, not to mention the impact on mental health considering breakdowns, broken relationships, loss of homes and families.”

Alex Dever predicted that the next two years potentially may remain uncertain as the ‘new normal’ emerges.

“Candidates keen to develop and grow their careers will need to weigh up new opportunities vs the safety net of their current roles, and similarly businesses will need to plan their talent and recruitment strategies for planned growth while concurrently planning for future uncertainty and impacts of future lockdowns and restrictions,” she said.

“It is a real challenge for a business and for employees to invest in each other in the face of an uncertain environment that could require significant shifting of resources and the business model on short notice.”

Last year was a huge learning curve, she said, and the possibility of remote working meant less time commuting and more time with family to get that all-important work-life balance right.

“But,” she said, “I think it’s important to remember that for most breweries, most teams work in a production facility or hospitality – so working from home is not an option! A one-size-fits-all approach to attracting candidates based purely on flex location or time work will never work.”

However, Dever explained that unlike hotels, bars or clubs, breweries have an added advantage that will see them remain resilient.

“Our industry has been fortunate in the sense that we provide a product that people can continue to enjoy even during COVID restrictions, with the exception of course of the hospitality and experiences side of breweries,” she said.

“This should mean that our sector becomes more attractive from a recruitment perspective as we can offer some form of stability, even in the event of further lockdowns and other restrictions.”

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