A recent topic that seems to come up often when I talk to industry colleagues is the appalling damage covid has done to Gen Z. For a while there has been much talk of the academic damage done, but less energy is focused on the social damage, particularly when it comes to the implications it has had upon them entering the workforce.  

If you are currently employing 16–20-year-olds, you are dealing with a generation that were between 12-16 when the pandemic began. School closures, remote learning, and social distancing measures completely rid them of face-to-face interactions for a long time. Of course, this led to an increase in social anxiety and discomfort in real-world settings. For many Gen Z workers, the prospect of engaging with customers, colleagues, and supervisors in person is really daunting. And, of course, within our industry, the need for social skills when entering the workforce is essential! 

As an industry, we see it in the people we recruit. Our teams struggle with some basic engagement skills; eye contact, initiating conversation and smiling, among others. As operators, we are having to work much harder than we did pre-covid to help young people through this journey. And we must – our industry survives on young people and improves the lives and capability of so many. It also helps people to develop essential life skills. 

This is unprecedented territory for us all – how do we help? From talking to others in the industry, I know there has been a focus on teaching conflict resolution and better customer service etiquette, whether that is through mentoring, or role-playing different scenarios. The other big one is opening up communication, to create an environment where employees feel comfortable asking for advice or discussing challenges, whether it be job-specific or general social competencies.  

We rely on young people in our businesses, so we want to encourage and support them so we can retain them. Gen Z are tech-savvy, quick learners, and often more open to change and innovation than older generations. I find that these traits can be really undervalued by leaders, but in our post-pandemic world, they need more recognition – particularly now we are increasingly relying on digital solutions and service models everywhere! 

In our pubs, I always enjoy it when I see the younger members of the team getting dropped off in a nice Range Rover. Their parents could easily afford to give their children the money they are earning. But instead, they recognise that working, particularly in hospitality, gives them much more. For starters: a work ethic, an ability to understand the value of money, an ability to talk to other people and engage with different generations in a meaningful way. These skills are invaluable and cannot be taught by staying at home or by asking mum and dad to fund your life every weekend!  

And beyond this, I think that our industry is now more important to UK plc than it has ever been. It would be great if, at some point, the government stopped taxing us to the hilt, and instead helped drive an industry that prepares people for the working world in a way that school, or even university, cannot. It is real work, with real customers and real expectations. 

I heard recently that hospitality employs over three million people. But given the high staff turnover, the percentage of young people that are in some way involved and moulded by hospitality is immense. An incredible number of the people I meet have, at one point in their journey, worked in hospitality, even if it was only for a summer.  

We need more recognition for the job we do, and more support for helping people through this journey. One-to-ones and coffee chats are all part of the training journey, but I think that one of the most important things is praising people when they do a good job. This is the reinforcement people need to try harder, be braver and challenge their fears. 

I do not think I am alone in believing that our standards have dropped since covid. We are all working hard to build back and get to the levels we want, and even to go beyond that. Of course, many things have changed due to covid, but with change also comes a real opportunity for hospitality leaders to shape a more resilient and capable workforce. So, get to it! 

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