LONDON — When organizers of the U.K. music festival Parklife recruited the 1,000 security staffers needed for the September event in Manchester, England, they had to go to extreme lengths to get them. To meet their quota for the festival, which was headlined by Megan Thee Stallion and British rappers Dave and Skepta, they bused in workers from Devon, 250 miles away, and from northern Scotland.
“We had to beg, borrow and steal from the whole of the U.K.,” says Parklife founder Sacha Lord. “Forty people from here, 20 people from there. It was a real battle.”
A growing shortage of security staff in Europe, especially in the United Kingdom, is causing headaches for concert promoters desperate to return to business after being closed for over a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Since live music resumed in the United Kingdom on July 19, concerns have mounted that concert- and clubgoers are being put at risk by a lack of qualified and experienced stewards and security supervisors.
The Nov. 5 tragedy in Houston — where 10 people died and hundreds more were injured in crowd surges at Travis Scott’s Astroworld festival — has only intensified those fears.
U.K. trade organization the Night Time Industries Association estimates around 30% of U.K. security staff working in the nighttime economy has left the industry in the last 18 months — an estimated 30,000 security staff.
In September, one in five U.K. nightlife/hospitality businesses closed or reduced operating hours due to a shortage of security staff, says NTIA CEO Michael Kill. The situation has worsened since then, he adds.
“Our front line of defense in terms of safeguarding our customers, counterterror and general public safety, is weakened by the fact that we haven’t got the required level of [security] resources to access,” says Kill. (A recent poll by the NTIA of night time economy businesses found that the security sector was only able to supply 70% of security resource to businesses.)
The United Kingdom has struggled with a shortage of security personnel for years, but the pandemic has exacerbated the situation. Heightened demand for security at hospitals and COVID-19 testing centers has would-be concert workers employed elsewhere with steadier, better-paying jobs. Brexit and the exodus of thousands of European Union (EU) citizens from the United Kingdom back to their home countries has further depleted the temporary work force that music security suppliers rely upon.
With next year’s concert calendar already packed, live-music executives worry there won’t be enough security staff to go around.
“We are an industry in crisis, and there’s simply not the numbers of qualified, experienced staff available to keep all these events safe,” says Reg Walker, director of ISG Security, which provides staff for U.K. music concerts and events.
He has had to increase wages, in some cases doubling them from pre-pandemic levels up to 30 pounds ($40) an hour for specialist staff — internal security that deals with everything from public order to evacuations.
The increased demand has meant that security workers are now signing up for multiple jobs on the same day and going with the highest bidder, says Walker, leaving some jobs understaffed. That has led to security firms overbooking staff by 20% to 30%.
Shortages are also causing concerns in continental Europe, where COVID-19 restrictions have meant that live music has been generally slower to return than in the United Kingdom. “Everybody’s very worried what will come the next event season in 2022,” says Eric Kant, owner of Netherlands-based Phase01 Crowd Management.
In the United Kingdom, Walker says he has witnessed “worrying” lapses in security protocols as firms hire unqualified staff to make up for the shortfall. Door supervisors have shown him they didn’t know what a laminate pass was (but allowed him entry anyway), and some security staff are not able to speak English.
“How are they going to evacuate an arena, understand a safety briefing or deal with a critical incident?” he asks. (The leading U.K. security firms — Showsec, SES Group and A.P. Security — all declined to comment for this story.)
Filling the void the past several months, executives say, are ad-hoc, unlicensed security firms that have started operating in the United Kingdom to cash in on the heightened demand — a troubling situation because there is no way to track their numbers, licenses and training.
Meanwhile, past tragedies at European music events, such as the 2015 terror attack at the Bataclan concert hall in Paris, where 90 people were killed, and a suicide bombing at a 2017 Ariana Grande concert at Manchester Arena, where 22 people died, remain stark reminders of the need for strong security when staging mass-audience events.
Lord, who also serves as the nighttime economy adviser for Greater Manchester, is looking to lure workers who have left the sector back with better working terms, job security and rates of pay. And the NTIA is calling on the U.K. government to introduce temporary visas for EU workers and to fund new training initiatives.
“If a solution isn’t found to this problem,” says Kill, “my fear is that it may lead to a tragedy.”
Additional reporting by Steve Knopper