Britain attracts 16 million overseas visitors every year and tourism, hospitality and leisure are worth more than £110bn to the economy, providing two million jobs in some 300,000 establishments. Hospitality and tourism are the main - sometimes the only - economic generators in some regions of the country. But they are also key support elements in hospitals, nursing homes, schools, colleges, offices, factories and even the armed forces, where the provision of high-quality catering facilities is of paramount importance.
What's more, the industry continues to grow. In the last 15 months more than 220 hotels - representing 19,000 rooms - opened in the UK, the biggest period of hotel construction in the industry's history. Since 2002, over 74,000 rooms have opened and a further 40,000 new rooms are planned for the years running up to the 2012 Olympic Games.
Restaurants have made huge strides too. London is now widely regarded as one of the restaurant capitals of the world and there are over 130 Michelin-starred establishments in the UK; 20 years ago there were just a handful. This turnaround has been largely achieved by British chefs trained in British colleges. Gordon Ramsay, Jamie Oliver and Gary Rhodes are household names, while Marcus Wareing, Chris Galvin, Angela Hartnett and Paul Heathcote are among the many other British names who are making the culinary headlines.
There is hardly a region of Britain that does not benefit from the tourism and hospitality industry, and it provides large-scale job and career opportunities. However, as an industry it suffers from severe skill and people shortages. Why is this? Research carried out by Springboard UK, the industry's recruitment and careers advisory organisation, tends to support anecdotal evidence: the image of long, unsociable hours, hard work and poor pay puts off many young people. However, the industry is changing rapidly. In fact, it offers skilled people a range of opportunities both in the UK and internationally: jobs in the kitchen, restaurant, front of house and backstage, as well as all manner of supervisory and management roles.
It doesn't stop there. A graduate can become a manager of a hotel, restaurant or leisure attraction in their early twenties. The manager of a top London hotel earns a six-figure sum; top chefs are equally well paid. Talented chefs and customer-service staff are in huge demand and all have the opportunity to work anywhere in the world. At the same time, many of the industry's traditional employment practices, such as split shifts, are disappearing. A five-day week is now commonplace and conditions of work can match the best across all industries.
Some of the work may not be easy: dealing with the public can try anyone's patience! Working in the kitchen can be hard work and you need to keep your wits about you at peak times in a busy restaurant. You also need a sharp sense of business: in almost every job in hospitality you need to use your initiative and common sense.
For those with a managerial bent there are more than 30 universities offering undergraduate education in various forms of hospitality and tourism. Few major companies now recruit people straight from school into their management development programmes. Students with an aptitude for craft skills can consider a growing number of colleges working with the newly established National Skills Academy for Hospitality. The Academy is run by a board made up of employers with the support of leading companies such as Barcelo hotels, Sodexo, InterContinental hotels, Travelodge, Accor hotels and McDonald's restaurants. Employers work with academy-recognised colleges and other centres to ensure learners get the development they require by providing masterclasses in practical skills, offering coaching and mentoring support and advising on curriculum development.
The best way of getting to know what the industry is all about is to take a part-time job in a hotel before you commit yourself to a college course. Working for just a few hours a week provides the opportunity to understand that the secret of success in any catering establishment is teamwork. And don't forget that you also need to love your customers: that way they'll love you too and keep you in business!
Bob Cotton is the chief executive of the British Hospitality Association, www.bha.org.uk