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Gillian Thomson

It’s been a tricky 18 months for hospitality, but Act-Clean director Gillian Thomson believes the future offers huge opportunities for those wanting to get on or get ahead in the sector

I’ve been in the hospitality industry pretty much all my life. In fact, I can’t really remember not being in or around this marvellously assorted sector.

I grew up in a Scottish seaside town on the Cowal peninsula in the south of Argyll and Bute and was highland dancing in my local hotels from the age of eight, before being employed by the local council to stand on top of the hill and play the bagpipes for tourists. You see, hospitality comes in all forms!

From my first job cleaning holiday chalet lets while I was at school in my hometown of Dunoon, I went on to study hotel and hospitality management at the University of Strathclyde before working my way through various disciplines in luxury hotels, restaurants and foodservice, prior to joining Act-Clean in 2010.

My role today centres around supporting the types of businesses I once worked in, but I still consider myself in operations. All of us are nothing without customers, clients, guests – whatever you choose to call them – and I believe that we are still very much part of the guest experience in terms of creating memories.

I clearly remember the problems I was trying to solve when I was the client – I had been a client of Act-Clean since its inception in 2006 when I was head of operations at Gordon Ramsay Restaurants (GRR) – and we have built our proposition, and, most importantly, our open, honest, and transparent approach to clients around that perspective.

In 30 years, I can’t remember a more challenging time for staffing than this last year. With a reduced supply of labour but increased demand, at Act-clean we’re spending four times as much on advertising and candidate attraction as we were pre-Covid. 

Of course, there have been periods before when the industry suffered intense skills shortages. I vividly remember similar issues around recruitment and our search for a solution in my previous roles. And while our business employs a workforce of more than 400 people across 50 London-based clients, supplying kitchen porters and night cleaners, the challenges were the same in those roles back then. But it didn’t stop people having the most incredible career and journey.

Over the years working in hospitality, I have met many great people who came into the sector as a junior employee and are now senior operators in industry. Equally, at Act-Clean, we have people who started with us with no experience who are now back of house managers in five-star, luxury hotels and are truly excelling at their jobs. We have front of house cleaners who are now croupiers, having worked at a casino we serviced, and we’ve had people who we nurtured and developed who have gone on to set up their own business and now, sometimes, we compete. It’s great.

There are many reasons for the current lack of resource. At Act-Clean, we are proud to employ a beautifully diverse workforce – from 45 different countries, although we’re keen to get this back to our pre-Covid levels of nearly double that figure.  As people started to return from their home countries after the various lockdowns, we found that many didn’t have settled status prior to the pandemic and didn’t realise they needed to have it now, so they can’t work without that.

We will continue to have an open-door policy to overseas recruitment, and we will continue to adopt the correct checks. The government website and guidance are crystal clear on this matter and our advice to others is follow the rules – we’ve never had a problem with recruiting from overseas because we do just that. 

There are other contributing factors to the skills shortage too. We believe it is only right and proper to pay the National Living Wage, but the sector is now competing with building sites offering kitchen porters £17 an hour to sweep up. It’s hard to rival, but we have chosen to see this as a silver lining. As part of our own review process, we have significantly re-evaluated and increased – hand in glove with our clients – pay rates across the board. To attract people to hospitality, we all need to review pay, hours, flexible working, part-time working, time off…

Like many, we’ve also had to fully retrain everyone because they were out of work or furloughed for so long. We’ve introduced new Covid procedures, and we’ve had to understand what has changed in client processes to ensure compliance. It’s almost been like revisiting everything that we do, assessing that it’s fit for purpose and starting again.

We review our social media channels constantly, and our employee referral scheme is proving to be a real strength. We have learned that we must continue to look after and incentivise our people to bring their communities to us, because we will look after them and they trust us to do a good job.

We are now viewing the challenges as an opportunity. How do the difficulties in recruitment allow us to be a better partner to our clients?  We have two key things to do – to find kitchen porters and night cleaners – and if we can do that, it means our clients have more time to focus on their own business activities and challenges by outsourcing those functions to us.  And we have great people who can do that. So, it’s hard, but it’s doable and we are listening to all our colleagues as to how we get better at it.

While many people have been tempted away from the industry in the past 18 months, I’m still heartened and encouraged by real-life stories in our business each day. Only recently, a man called to see if we had any vacancies as he was looking to relocate from Chester to London. He had just enough money to cover two weeks in a hostel. He came to us, registered, and because he had a fantastic attitude, we offered him a role in one of our long-standing client sites straightaway. After only four shifts, he was asked to cover a no-show in one of our new client sites holding a launch party. He made such an impact, the new client asked if we would place him there as a supervisor. KP to supervisor in a week!

These types of stories are peppered throughout the business. While we are a smaller management team than we were before, without exception, all our operation people started at the bottom and worked their way up. Both our senior night manager (Frank) and our night operations manager (Lawrence) started as kitchen cleaners; our senior day operations manager (Maros) started as a KP. Our senior manager (Riaaz) was a day manager, went back to his home country and when he returned to UK, we were his first call to resume work and he is now in a more senior position. Our operations director (Georgina) started as a sales administrator, and I started as a consultant for client intros, completed a management buyout and am part of the board and leadership team.

For what we do, all that matters is a good attitude and reliability – we can train and manage the rest. The right person for us is always the person with the right attitude. We have brilliant operations managers and resourcing teams who are thorough in their checking of this, and we feel that many more employers in the industry could invest in this procedure to make people succeed.

There are plenty of initiatives to get behind such as National Older Workers Week, National KP Day – we value our team and want to shout about how great they are. We are members of Hospitality Action’s Employee Assistance Programme (EAP), which our team members can turn to if they want to talk to someone in confidence. We feel all hospitality employers should be adopting this for their teams.

We feel positive. We have dusted ourselves down and are now only forward looking. There are still challenges ahead, but with all the changes we have made, in partnership with our amazing clients, we are creating a better service and a stronger business.

Gillian Thomson was speaking to Amanda Afiya