Only nine per cent of construction workers are under 30. SUR
Construction and hospitality: booming industries that can't find workers in Malaga province

Construction and hospitality: booming industries that can't find workers in Malaga province

The lack of young blood is the root cause of the staffing problem faced by these two pillars of Malaga's economy, whose strong growth rate cannot be maintained without suitably qualified workers

Nuria Triguero


Friday, 5 May 2023, 11:34


The two key planks of Malaga province's economy are facing a problem that threatens to break their strong growth rate. Reason? Neither inflation nor the rise in interest rates nor any other macroeconomic factor. Quite simply, construction and hospitality cannot find workers. Waiters, cooks, bricklayers and other tradespeople top the list of the most sought-after professionals in the Malaga job market.

The hotel industry on the Costa del Sol broke employment records last year: in August the sector exceeded 100,000 employees for the first time with the year's average close to 88,000. Construction, for its part, already has more than 60,000 workers on the payroll. Both sectors are experiencing a boom fuelled by growth in tourism, investment and population within the province. But the lack of workforce is already putting the brakes on.

Employers' organisations in both sectors have begun to sound the alarm, but the current difficulties in filling vacancies are only a warning of what awaits us. In the coming years, the baby-boom generation reaches retirement age, which will weigh heavily on these professions.

Each sector has its own issues, but the root cause of the problem with finding workers in both is the lack of young blood entering these industries. Young people are not attracted to these professions for their bad reputation.

Despite these shortages, Malaga continues to be among the provinces with the highest unemployment in Spain (March: 137,660). No simple explanation for this paradox. "There is a problem of lack of qualifications," said José Antonio Salgado, director of Adecco's recruitment services in Andalucía. Most vacancies require a minimum of training or experience that most of the unemployed do not possess.

Employers demand changes to the benefits system to encourage more job seekers while the unions demand that the sectors improve wages and working conditions to make those offers more attractive.

Construction: a booming sector with an ageing workforce

Gone are the boom years of the '90s and '00s, when thousands of young people left their studies to go into building, attracted by high salaries. Most lost their jobs when the housing bubble burst and ended up moving to other sectors. Of the more than 100,000 construction workers in the province in 2007, barely a third remained active five years later.

Now construction is once again on the up, but its bad reputation has stuck with the young. The average age of workers in the industry is around 50 and only 9% are under 30, compared to 27% who are over 50, according to data from the Construction Labour Foundation (FLC). In the next fifteen years, more than a third of that workforce will retire with no replacements in sight.

"There is a lack of interest from young people in this sector and we believe that it is because it is perceived as unstable, physically tiring and even dangerous work, when the reality is that construction has changed a lot: it has become more professional, modern as an industry and is a leading light in labour matters such as continuous training, risk prevention and pension planning," said Violeta Aragón, head of the Association of Builders and Promoters of Malaga, who also highlighted other benefits - no weekend working, clocking off at 3pm on Fridays and working shorter, but continuous days in summer. "And the salaries aren't bad at all," added Luis Miguel Morillas, delegate in Andalucía for FLC. The stipulated salary for a bricklayer is 1,291.80 euros per month, but "if we take into account that there is a lot of demand for labour and little supply, it is easy for qualified professionals to charge well above the agreed minimum," Morillas explained.

Here comes the key word: qualifications. The labour shortfall is primarily in the professions (bricklayers, electricians, plumbers, plasterers, formwork specialists, drivers, ironworkers, among others) and from technical positions and middle management (site managers, project managers, foremen and specialists in the prevention of occupational and environmental risks). "The current demand for productivity is such that companies cannot afford to recruit workers and train them," said Morillas. On the FLC jobs website, 39% of the published offers are not filled.

Training opportunities are not lacking: the construction sector is a shining example of vocational training. The FLC (which includes employers' representatives and the two largest trade unions) offers courses throughout Spain, free to the unemployed, all ages, with professional certification in all trades. Despite being free of charge, with easy enrollment and work experience in companies, Morillas recognises that some courses cannot run due to lack of students.

This shortage has already extended to less qualified roles. "It's tough finding labourers," said Aragón. "At first we eased the shortfall by bringing in crews from other provinces, but now we cannot drum up all the people we need," he added. With the shortage, building projects slow down and bottlenecks are frequent: if form-workers are unavailable, for example, all work stops.

Francisco Cerén, general director of Malaga construction company Bilba, cites several causes for young people not finding this industry attractive: "We are in a sector with working conditions that require a certain geographical mobility and specific training, with strong barriers to entry for females and, moreover, it is low-paid and highly affected by economic cycles".

Solutions? Cerén proposes four courses of action. Firstly, to exploit advances in building processes, reducing labour costs on the external build while, secondly, delivering a more specialised workforce that allows "increased remuneration" and improving opportunities for women. Thirdly, he proposes "breaking with the traditional learning methods of apprentice-labourer-certified trade" and lastly, promoting "changes in the current benefits system", since he believes they discourage the unemployed from taking low-paid positions. "Add to this the possibility of some practising their trade as a side hustle, we find ourselves with an insuperable combination of factors".

This manager is not afraid to criticise his own industry, stating that companies should pay "greater attention to recruitment policies that enable them to attract and retain talent", specifically "improving working conditions, offer non-salary benefits alongside continuous training programmes". That is what Bilba is doing and thus are less affected by labour shortages because, unlike most construction companies, Bilba retains core staff. "We have about 500 employees, of which around 400 are in construction. We do not promote job instability, but we are concerned about retaining talent and replacing key workers," said Cerén. To this end he explains that they have established "internal training and mentoring plans for key personnel without requiring formal training programmes. On-the-job training consists of identifying employees with potential, keen to learn and improve, and we assign them a senior employee to teach and mentor their professional development."

In addition, Bilba is one of the construction companies involved in the 'Building Blocks for Employment' pilot project from the FLC, which includes, among other actions, the running of formal training plus work experience. This initiative also includes giving talks by leading tradespeople from the industry to school-age teenagers, informing them of the professional opportunities now offered by the sector and breaking down negative stereotypes.

Hospitality: workers who go to other sectors do not return

Over Easter, businesses in the hospitality sector raised the alarm: not enough waiters and cooks to boost staffing levels needed for high season. Beach bars and restaurants, so dependent on summer trade, are the most concerned about this shortfall, already evident last summer and already worse this year, with forecasts of tourist numbers promising to break pre-pandemic records.

Waiters wanted. Signs advertising staff vacancies are everywhere in Malaga and the Costa del Sol.
Waiters wanted. Signs advertising staff vacancies are everywhere in Malaga and the Costa del Sol. Francis Silva

The most obvious reason for the shortage is that, in recent years, the number of people employed in the hospitality sector has increased in the province to record levels. In 2022 there was an average of 86,000 workers throughout the year, peaking in August with a record-breaking 102,000. The tourism and gastronomy business booms experienced by both Malaga city and the Costa del Sol have boosted employment in the sector to unprecedented levels.

With this in mind, why then does Malaga province still have over 130,000 unemployed of whom 16,000 are looking for bar or restaurant work? Two possibilities: either the industry cannot attract workers or the barriers to entry are too high for the unemployed.

José Antonio Salgado from Adecco suggests there has been a "talent drain" from the hospitality industry to other sectors: "As a result of the Covid crisis, we tracked many professionals as having switched to other sectors, such as logistics, transport or manufacturing. Post-pandemic, these workers have decided to stay in those sectors, which offer them more stability". Manuel Villafaina, president of the association of Costa del Sol beach businesses, has first-hand experience of this: "Many of our best workers left us because they preferred to work, even if in something else, than to stay on furlough. And now they are fine where they are," he complained.

It is undeniable that the nature of hospitality work can be unattractive to job seekers: seasonal, weekend working, split shifts and night shifts. More so now that the labour market offers opportunities in other booming sectors such as construction, logistics or transport. Some businesses in the sector believe the "leisure culture" that young people have is putting them off the hospitality industry, since they do not want to work when everyone is resting. This is what Pablo Gonzalo, a partner of El Pimpi and Tercer Acto group, thinks: that it is not a pay problem as an average waiter "does not have a low salary - they can earn between 1,500 and 1,800 euros per month" (the agreed minimum salary is 1,472). He adds a key point believed to exacerbate the problem: "Previously many people came to work on the Costa del Sol and now it is difficult because they cannot find affordable housing."

Given the shortage of labour, the pinching of staff abounds in the hospitality world, especially when new businesses are opening, offering promotions or raises to waiters and cooks to convince them to switch uniform. Some companies deploy tactical defences such as internal promotion, creating company pride, a sense of belonging and other policies. "We have close to 170 employees and very low staff turnover. In the end, it is about giving stability to, and caring for, the employees; to show concern for them and their circumstances. For example, we always try to give morning shifts to employees who are single parents, explains Elena Cobos, another partner at El Pimpi.

Ricardo Fernández, director of El Higuerón restaurant, explains his own recipe for retaining talent: "Permanent contracts, continuous eight-hour shifts, two consecutive days off and internal training. Now, for example, I have given up providing a breakfast service and that time is spent training waiters: I hire people with good attitude but who lack training." He, like the other businessowners consulted, believes that in the hospitality industry a lively, free and adequate training offer is missing from the current jobs market.

"The current staff shortage was foreseen but nobody has shown much interest in fixing it. Lack of training; young people have nowhere to learn the trade other than in hospitality schools. We need short, practical courses," says Pepe Gómez, a partner in the La Reserva group.

From El Balneario restaurant, José Luis Ramos agreed: "The industry needs to become more professional, with training adapted to reality. Waiters don't need one or two-year courses; they need intense training and internships."

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