Last month I explored how, by investing heavily in training, we could reduce the burden of staff shortages and improve staff motivational levels (Caterer, February 24, page 18). But we can also, right now, improve our recruitment shortages by tapping into a rich seam of talent that is simply begging to be mined. The only problem is they are all over 40.
Ageism exists in our industry, yet we are reluctant to acknowledge it publicly. But we must. Young people considering our industry can see for themselves that we do not employ many people beyond the age of 40.
OK, some of our senior management may be 40-plus, but what about waiters, bartenders, commis chefs and so on? Where do they go if they haven't made it into management? They get prematurely dumped on a jobs scrapheap to make room for a younger generation.
Let's face it, at senior management level we keep up the pretence that there are long-term careers for young people, when we know in our heart of hearts that we won't be wanting 90% of our present staff in 10, 15 or 20 years.
How many 40-, 50- or 60-year-olds do you see as waiters, bartenders or even duty managers in fast-moving operations such as TGI Friday's or All Bar One? None, probably.
Many liken the restaurant business to theatre and, generally, the comparison holds true - except in one vital respect. As actors get older, they can play older parts or disguise their age to appear younger. Our staff can't do that. So, what is going to become of most of our hourly paid employees and junior management now in their 20s and 30s when they turn 40?
Well, with the exception of the famous few waitresses who have been at the Hard Rock Café since 1970 and who are rediscovered by the media every few years on a slow news day, they will disappear.
When we are begging to fill vacancies, why are we not willing to employ older people? Because most of our businesses are designed to appeal to the young, and we want those businesses staffed by people like those we wish to attract. We think that's good business.
I would wager that our preconceived notions are wrong and that the public would welcome older people in "young" establishments. And I believe we are sorely mistaken if we think an ageist policy is good for business.
Older people are an invaluable and overlooked resource. Provided the mix of ages is carefully thought through, having older staff can be beneficial, both for employers and customers.
Back of house, ageism takes a different form. Almost certainly a 50-year-old cook does not have the energy of a 20-year-old, but he will more than likely offer stability, experience and wisdom and probably turn up on time, because he will value his job. That, in my opinion is a fair trade-off.
Right side of the law
In some countries, such as the USA, employment discrimination on the basis of age is illegal. You cannot ask an applicant his or her age, neither is it provided on a curriculum vitae. Yet in the UK you can advertise for "young waiters and waitresses aged 18 to 22" if you care to.
If we are serious about finding ways of alleviating our skills shortage, we had better be prepared to rethink our attitude to older people. I don't think we can afford to do otherwise.
Michael Gottlieb is president of the Restaurant Association and proprietor of Café Spice restaurants and Pencom (Service That Sells) UK