21 March, 2022

A staff crisis?

Gambling Insider regular Paul Sculpher talks about the ongoing crisis in the UK’s land-based casinos.

As an industry, we thought we had a problem with staffing – particularly gaming staffing – a few years ago. Wages were stagnant in real terms since the introduction of tipping back in 2007, and bottom lines weren’t really swelling to allow operators to boost the rewards for their teams.

Fast forward to today, and the current situation makes 2017 look like there were squadrons of experienced dealers hanging out on street corners begging for shifts. If you add together the impacts of Brexit, Covid-19 and Minimum Living Wage increases, the industry has reached a genuine crisis point, and it’s tough to see where things are going to get better.

Pre-Covid, we used to joke that dealer pay rates weren’t that much better than rewards for shelf stackers. Well, since supermarkets have announced they’ve gone to £10 ($13.15) per hour everywhere in the country (more near London), that’s not so funny anymore.  Plenty of staff are asking themselves “why am I working nights, dealing with sometimes difficult customers, when I could have an easier life working sociable hours for more money?”

The answer used to lie in future prospects.  In my dealing days, the holy grail was working on cruise ships, or in London. One of those is now pretty much a non-starter – the cruise lines don’t necessarily value UK experience anymore, and pay rates have come crashing down with the influx of skilled dealers from countries where money goes a lot further.  London is more viable, with tips making the difference – but of course costs of living and commuting take a fair chunk out of wages.

Progression is the other element that appears not to have the appeal it might once have had. The concept of doing a great job as a dealer and supervisor, and progressing to shift manager for perhaps £7,000 more per year – and a whole lot more problems, both from obstreperous staff and cranky customers – isn’t too aspirational for many. Add in the fact that pressure on shift managers – the toughest job in the casino industry in my view – from above, both from a performance point of view and a licence protection point of view, is ever more intense, and you get to a genuine “why would I do that to myself?” inflection point.

The biggest issue for operators may be that they cannot find people to join the industry, but the people who do stick with you are occasionally not the type you want.  It’s fair to say the majority of “lifers” are the backbone of any casino, who know the majority of customers well enough to greet them by name, and have the experience to deal with the myriad of situations that pop up. However, every casino has someone who’s past their sell-by date, hates their job and the customers (and possibly themselves), and isn’t scared to let everyone know it. It was tough enough to ship them out previously, and now that resources and manpower are scarce mainstream casinos are failing to open tables on schedule. So those decisions don’t get any easier.

What’s the solution? Well, the simple answer is to pay them more, but obviously that solves one problem and creates another.  Let’s say you add £2 to the hourly rate of gaming staff – you can’t boost the bottom tier without them overtaking the next few tiers, so it has to encompass everyone. If you have 50 casinos and 30 gaming staff in each, on 40 hours for example, that’s £6m annually, and that’s a big bill to be paying.  The alternative is to inch it up gradually, but gradually might not cut it in a dynamic world where working better hours behind a bar, or easier days stacking shelves with a chance of eventual progression, is available to anyone.

The only other feasible option is to reduce your reliance on humans, which of course has been happening for years. Greater reliance on slots and Electronic Table Games – possibly boosted by the incoming Gambling Review – seems the only feasible direction of travel. It’s likely to be supplemented by pricing policies, which we’ve already seen signs of, nudging marginal players in the direction of the electronic alternatives. This means only table players are punting fast enough to make the casino viable with limited gaming staff.

Whichever way you look at it, the equation doesn’t stack up right now. We can’t afford to pay a ton more for staff, but we can’t operate the engine room of the traditionally table-driven UK casino without enough of them. The UK sector has enough challenges right now, and this one isn’t making life any easier.  Perhaps the Gambling Review can come galloping to the rescue...