The hospitality industry is facing a workforce shortage.

Nationally, the hospitality industry is facing a workforce shortage. This scarcity of staff is a chronic problem, with COVID-19 adding an acute strain.

Chronically, there has been a steady increase in vacant positions across the hospitality sector for the past six years. According to the Skilled Migration List Review 2017 from Restaurant & Catering Australia (R&CA), “collectively, more than two-thirds of hospitality businesses (68.4 per cent) were experiencing some or extreme difficulty in filling vacant positions.” The positions most affected are cooks, chefs and café and restaurant managers.

More acutely, the COVID-19 pandemic has added crippling challenges:

  • lack of working holiday makers, temporary visa and permanent migrants
  • community lockdowns
  • social distancing
  • time consuming health and safety measures
  • and domestic and international travel restrictions.

While keeping us safe, these limitations come at enormous cost. And these costs will escalate when temporary assistance, JobKeeper and cash boosts, are phased out.

This situation was worsened when Australia’s ‘business reopening’ coincided with the peak summer season. Businesses were trying to manage over-enthusiastic customers coming out of lockdown; boost their workforce after losing most of their casual staff during the peak of the pandemic; and function at reduced capacity with strict social distancing guidelines.

Job figures released mid-March this year reveal the biggest surge in job vacancies experienced by the food and accommodation sector, rising by 66 per cent, with a total of 8900 vacancies. R&CA CEO Wes Lambert said, “businesses live or die on being able to get a head chef and a manager, with up to 20-30 further employees relying on these positions being filled. Without those 1-2 skilled positions being filled, the jobs of all employees are at risk.”

Until now, there perhaps wasn’t enough appreciation for how much the hospitality sector contributes to the Australian economy. The Australian Bureau of Statistics data indicates that turnover in the café, restaurant and catering sector exceeded $30.5 billion for the January 2021 seasonally adjusted estimate; an annual 10.6% increase. In addition, hospitality businesses make a significant contribution to Australian employment.

Ensuring businesses can access skilled workers is vitally important for the recovery of the economy and the long-term survival of the hospitality sector.


History can be a useful teacher. Every post-disaster period in Australia across the last 100 years has boomed when there was an influx in immigrants. After both World Wars the Australian Government boosted the work force and population in order to stimulate post-war economic development. In its R&CA March 2021 media release, Mr Lambert commented “the post-pandemic period is no different,” and identified “increased skilled migration as a key economic lever that must be pulled to aid in Australia’s recovery.”

Government response

There have been many proposals made to governments, treasuries and tax offices to support hospitality businesses. Those lobbying include the Australian Hotels Association, R&CA, Australian Leisure & Hospitality and the Restaurant & Catering Association. Hospitality business groups held a meeting with the National Skills Commission in January to discuss prioritising qualified chefs for work visas.

And in a big win for the nation’s 48,600 restaurants, cafes and catering businesses, a parliamentary committee on migration made ten recommendations for dealing with the present labour shortages. These include:

  • Government increasing its visa program to allow people from a wider pool of countries
  • expanding the working holiday maker visa. Julian Lesser, Joint Standing Committee on Migration chairman and Liberal MP, says “working holiday makers fill critical labour shortages that Australians traditionally want to.”
  • developing a ‘Gap Year at Home’ campaign to appeal to young Australians, who might have chosen to travel overseas, to see some of their own country and undertake work
  • encouraging temporary work visa holders residing in Australia to take up hospitality work
  • allowing work in all peri-urban, regional, rural or remote areas, to count towards qualifying for a second and/or third year visa.

On the move

Prioritising skilled labour sources, through government support of local workers and a boost to the migration system, is of critical importance to the productivity and employment growth of the hospitality sector. The pandemic may have been the tipping point for the industry, but it has created an impetus to address the chronic, and acute, hospitality skills shortages. An injection of skilled workers is imperative to help the hospitality sector move again.