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Cambridge: supplying skills for the local visitor economy

Cambridge has a strong international profile aided by easy access from London. Its tourism and hospitality sectors have been growing strongly in recent years with visitors having increased by 50 per cent since 2013.

The vast majority of its 8.1 million visitors are day visitors and the priority is to change the perception of the city as a day trip destination, whilst increasing the value that the city and the surrounding area derives from tourism. 

Visit Cambridge and Beyond is the official destination management organisation (DMO) for Cambridge and the surrounding area. It is almost entirely self-funding and receives less than 4 per cent of its annual earned income from the public sector. This funding model poses real challenges for Visit Cambridge and Beyond. There is no residual tourism function within Cambridge City Council. 

Although it has considerable growth potential, tourism and hospitality is not recognised as a strategic priority by the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority.

Issues and challenges

Whilst “recruitment and retention are a constant issue” the shortages are fairly universal, including bar staff, cleaners, chefs, waiters, gallery attendants, kitchen porters and housekeeping staff.  Very high employment rates locally mean that there is an absolute shortage of labour. Prospective young recruits are considered to lack communication skills, which are vital in the sector’s customer-facing roles.

As well as recruitment, retention is a significant issue. Current difficulties are becoming more acutely driven by:

  • the loss of international employees – employers are already feeling the impact of workers returning to their home countries with some employers relying on international staff for 60-70 per cent of their workforce
  • young people’s expectations have changed with the ‘gig’ economy and there is an expectation for greater flexibility in working hours
  • changing demographics with fewer young people and an ageing workforce.

The workforce in Cambridge is well-qualified and the perception is that vocational routes are second class, including the apprenticeship route. Employer discussions acknowledged that there is an issue with the competitiveness of wages. The absence of major employers, coupled with the lack of strategic impetus and limited funding means that no organisation is leading the drive to tackle the skills issues the sector faces.

Not all recruitment difficulties are skills related, other issues which impact on recruitment and retention include a lack of affordable housing and transport issues.

The local response

There are no skills initiatives specific to the visitor economy but the new Skills and Apprenticeship Hub being developed by the combined authority will streamline employer/ learner engagement for work experience, work trials, career support and so on. The aim is to put more onus on employers to engage in training and apprenticeships through a skills pledge.

Skills devolution is seen as important for Cambridgeshire and Peterborough since the Mayor and the combined authority only have responsibility for the very modest adult education budget with little or no traction on the 16 to 19 training budget or the apprenticeship system. 

The Sector Deal is seen as an important lever to put pressure on local areas to acknowledge the potential of the tourism and hospitality sector.