Staff shortages ‘becoming critical’ for many West Highland tourism businesses, says new report

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More than half of the tourism businesses in the West Highlands quizzed for a new survey say they are short-staffed, blaming the absence of available local workers and affordable accommodation, coupled to a lack of cost-effective access to foreign staff.

The survey from the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) Highlands and Islands was conducted over the last week in May and the first week in June and focused on tourism and hospitality businesses within the Highlands and Islands Enterprise area (Shetland, Orkney, Outer Hebrides, Highland, Moray, Argyll and Arran) and produced 290 responses..

A breakdown of the results within the HIE area reveals that the West (the West Highlands, Skye, Argyll and Arran) was generally performing better than the East, with three in 10 businesses describing themselves as doing badly (31 per cent), as against four in 10 in the region as a whole (42 per cent).

Going forward, over eight in 10 businesses in the West (84 per cent) were optimistic about surviving until 2022, as against three quarters across the region as a whole (75 per cent).

But in the West, over half of employers said they were short-staffed (53 per cent), compared to 45 per cent across the region as a whole.

Businesses were trying to recruit staff from wherever they could get them, and six in 10 had increased wages to in bids to attract and retain employees.

The report calls on the Scottish Government to commit to a range of actions, including withdrawing the need for physical distancing and self-isolation once most of the adult population is fully vaccinated against Covid.

It also calls on the UK Government to pilot a remote visa for employers in the Highlands and Islands.

Commenting on the results, the Federation of Small Businesses’ Highlands and Islands Development Manager, David Richardson, said while the ambition has always been for the Highlands and Islands to have a truly mixed economy, the fact is that most of this vast region is dependent, directly and indirectly, on tourism.

The Federation of Small Business (FSB)’s Highlands & Islands Development Manager, David Richardson
The Federation of Small Businesses (FSB)’s Highlands and Islands Development Manager, David Richardson.

‘While the businesses in the West are generally doing better than those in the East, the fact that three in 10 described themselves as struggling and 16 per cent were pessimistic about their chances of surviving into 2022  is very worrying,’ he added.

‘The lack of customers, especially overseas visitors, is a real worry and the sooner travel restrictions are lifted the better.

‘However, the concern that should be exercising minds most is clearly staffing. Staff shortages have been a growing problem for years, even with a plentiful supply of EU workers, but now the situation in the West in particular, is becoming critical.

‘Hard-pressed businesses are struggling, and in many cases failing, to recruit people from wherever they can get them – locally, from the rest of the UK, or overseas – and four in 10 have increased pay rates in a bid to improve recruitment and retention – six in 10 in the West.

‘Sadly, however, staffing shortages in tourism and hospitality are a national and international problem rather than something purely local, and solving the problem in the Highlands and Islands is going to be far from easy.

‘We must make it as easy as possible for businesses to take on staff, including much-needed migrant workers from overseas, and we must solve the accommodation issue, with a mixture of affordable housing for residents and rooms for seasonal staff.’