The education system must change to meet the needs of our economy

Written by:

Arwyn Watkins OBE

Managing Director of Cambrian Training Company

President of the Culinary Association of Wales

Most people are now aware of the recruitment crisis in several sectors of the economy, both here in Wales and across the UK.

The shortage of truck drivers has been in the headlines lately, but the hospitality industry was grappling with a decrease in the number of employees even before the Covid-19 pandemic blocked the UK.

I have a passion for the hospitality industry, which is understandable since I started my career as an apprentice cook in the military. Earlier this year, Cambrian Training Company made the bold decision to open Chartists 1770 at The Trewythen, a seven-room restaurant in the historic market town of Llanidloes, in central Wales. The new company employs 16 full-time and part-time people, including six apprentices.

From my personal experience and speaking with hotel companies we work with across Wales, I am well aware of the difficulty in recruiting staff. Let me say at the outset that there is no easy solution to this recruitment crisis.

For too many years hotel companies and other sectors of the economy have been too dependent on workers in European countries. Now, due to Brexit and the impact of the pandemic, these economic migrants are no longer available to businesses.

I think the long term solution lies in the compulsory education system here in Wales and across the UK. For more than a decade, the workplace learning sector in Wales has campaigned for apprenticeships to be on par with diplomas. But our words fell on deaf years.

Our education system currently encourages the most talented and productive children to aspire to attend college, while apprenticeship is often seen as a second option. As a result, many talented young people go to university and obtain degrees unrelated to the needs of the economy. This must change so that our education system, from elementary school on, is linked to the future needs of our economy.

How are children currently made aware of opportunities in the hospitality industry and other sectors? The answer is they are not and that needs to change. As in industry, we must be allowed to hire children from primary school age.

Economy Minister Vaughan Gething said we must do everything possible to keep our children in Wales, but our education system does the exact opposite. We export our talent to universities outside Wales and how many return to work here? There is a drain in human resources.

This policy could have been good in the past because there were other options available to businesses in the form of economic migrants. This option no longer exists.

Every hotel business needs to have a conversation with its politicians, both in Wales and across the UK. We cannot continue to operate in an economy where 50 percent of our most talented individuals are encouraged to pursue higher education, excluding them from the workforce for at least three years.

Changing this system is not going to win votes, but meeting the needs of the economy is far more important to the country than votes. The UK and Welsh governments can start by educating children about the rewarding career opportunities available in the hospitality industry, which unfortunately is not held in the same esteem here as in other European countries.

There is no manpower crossing the hill to save us. In the long run, we need to learn how to attract people to the hospitality industry, how to treat them when they’re in our businesses, and how to value and retain them.

We also need to learn to engage with our local communities, as our workforce of tomorrow will come from within our communities, not from outside. It is high time that those of us who work in industry or who love the industry began to value the careers that are made there for our own children. Unfortunately, there are currently not enough people who see hospitality as a rewarding career, a perception that we need to change in the industry.

Companies need to take a long look at themselves to analyze whether they are doing everything possible to create the right work environment for their people. If a person chooses to stay in Wales to develop their career, we have a duty as employers to create opportunities for them.

The world has changed since the start of the pandemic and employees now naturally expect a good work-life balance. The industry must respond by creating opportunities for flexible working hours, which many companies are already doing.

However, we cannot avoid the harsh reality that some employers have suffered reputational damage in their local community because of the way they have treated their employees. It’s not something that can be fixed overnight, but these employers need to change the way they operate or exit the industry. The hospitality industry is a unique industry which is extremely important to Wales and has proven itself over the past 18 months.

I have spoken at length about the need for change which will entail costs. Will consumers be prepared to pay more for hospitality services in the future, an inevitable consequence of rising costs of food, labor, fuel and taxes?

At the end of the day, the consumer is going to have to pay more for everything. Will this become the breaking point for declining occupancy rates, making businesses financially unviable with fewer jobs, fewer taxes for the Exchequer and more unemployed? Only time will tell.

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