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12 February 2021

How Covid-19 caused a skills shift

In hospitality and retail, the skills in demand since the pandemic began are changing. 

By Rohan Banerjee

Fabio Crepaldi, a barista based in south London, has worked in the hospitality sector for just shy of a decade. He was an old hand at the job before the coronavirus hit, but the disease has changed expectations. Pre-pandemic customers generally wanted “speed of service” to get through a busy queue and back to the office, but now the job is “much more about attention to detail, so you have time to talk to the customers and then know them better.” Customers also need more reassurance about hygiene. With people worried, he says, it makes a difference for them to see “how you prepare the coffee, how you handle the things that they are going to eat.”

Covid-19 has hit retail and hospitality particularly hard. According to figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), there were 819,000 fewer workers on UK company payrolls last November compared to when the pandemic began. Hospitality accounted for the highest proportion of those losses – a third – with retail coming second. According to Fourth, a computer software firm specialising in restaurant and hotel operating systems, in 2020 the overall headcount in the hospitality sector dropped by 28 per cent compared with the previous year.

With many shops, pubs, restaurants and tourist attractions ordered to close their doors when Covid-19 lockdowns and tiered containment measures have been put in place, these businesses are either having to adapt with new products or services, many of them online, or plan for a future in which, even with the roll-out of multiple vaccines, they are unlikely to be as reliant on footfall or passing trade as they were in the past.

Read more: Why the UK needs a technical education revolution

With a new status quo come new skills, and jobs in retail and hospitality are expected to change significantly. In June last year, the HR consultancy firm People 1st released a report predicting an increase in the demand for “critical skills in relation to the pandemic”, including greater health and safety awareness, better hygiene practices, and enhanced customer service skills, requiring staff to take the initiative and make firm decisions in uncertain situations.

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The premise of “having someone come in and pour a few pints and have the craic with the locals” is simply “not enough anymore”, says Adam Noble, who co-manages The Jolly Brewers, a pub in rural Norfolk. “You need people who absolutely understand technology,” he says.

The Jolly Brewers, which had only been in business for 18 months before the pandemic started, has managed well through a series of lockdowns. “We’ve actually recruited, so our team is bigger than it was this time last year… We’ve now got a team of 20 people,” Noble says, as he explains how the pub has started operating a basic grocery store with a delivery service.

Last August, the government’s Eat Out To Help Out Scheme saw large numbers of people able to access food discounted by 50 per cent at participating pubs and restaurants three days a week for the whole month. But even during that period, Noble says, the shop and its deliveries still accounted for around 20 per cent of The Jolly Brewers’ business.

Read more: Can pubs survive the coronavirus crisis?

Richard Lim, the chief executive of market research firm Retail Economics, says the pandemic is bringing about a change in consumer habits, much of which is contextualised by a “seismic shift towards online”. In September last year, the ONS reported that the proportion of total sales in the UK that took place online had grown by more than 10 per cent.

Some of those “underlying trends” that existed pre-Covid-19, Lim predicts, will accelerate and more businesses will look at having “fewer stores and less space”. With more sales moving online “there will be fewer shop floor workers”. The remaining retail labour market will move to “higher-skilled and also higher-paid” roles.

“From an economist’s point of view, we see that… transference of skill sets move more into other areas,” Lim says. “And that might be in… warehousing. That might be in logistics, for the kind of final-mile delivery for online orders.” He predicts a “rebalancing of that part of the labour market”. Retail has always been resilient, he says.

Read more: What does the sale of Debenhams tells us about the future of retail?

The role of the shop floor worker, and indeed the shop floor, is likely to change, too. “It won’t just be about the distribution of products from stores; it will be more about building the brand, merging online and digital together, and using the store as an effective customer-acquisition tool,” Lim explains. Shop floors would be like showrooms for customers, that are “super-charged with technology”, he says.

In terms of customer acquisition, Noble says social media will continue to play a huge part across both retail and hospitality. Instagram in particular, he notes, has been helpful in expanding The Jolly Brewers’ audience reach and showcasing its latest products. “I’ve never had that before last year,” he says, adding, “but now it’s a big thing because people see a picture and they say, ‘right, how do I order that meal to be delivered to my house right now?’” In the same way pubs might previously have had separate bar and kitchen managers, Noble can “absolutely see a future where you would have a delivery manager or a takeaway manager.”

Kate Nicholls, chief executive officer of the sector’s trade body UK Hospitality, predicts that, in the short term, pre-pandemic jobs will return as hospitality venues re-open. The sector “is one of the quickest [sectors] to recover in terms of jobs”, she notes, adding that after the 2009 financial crisis “hospitality generated one in six net new jobs”. In the long term, however, she predicts roles will evolve with continuing investment “in tech solutions to ease the customer journey, [such as] online check-in, online ordering and payment, QR codes for downloadable information – as well as back-of-house IT investment to ease labour scheduling and match demand with supply”.

Read more: Why all businesses must put people first

Roles will become “more focused on customer fulfilment and value-added service – what we saw in the summer [of 2020] was a consumer appetite for experiences.” The hospitality sector has “always invested heavily in training, particularly in health and safety, food hygiene and licensing compliance”, Nicholls adds, and she expects Covid-19 awareness to be an enduring skill requirement for anyone working in the sector.

Adaptation is the watchword for people-centric trades such as retail and hospitality. Nicholls is confident they will find a way to cope. “This is something that will be built into future management training to build resilience.” In the face of adversity, there is room for the growth of “new skills around digital marketing, communication, and the implementation of technological solutions”, she says. 

Retail and hospitality have undoubtedly suffered during the pandemic, but with new skills they may be equipped to recover.

This article originally appeared in the Spotlight report on skills and apprenticeships. You can download the full edition here.