Chefs & hospitality staff: we know we’re screwed but what can we do about it?

What is happening now?
Like many industries, chef and hospitality staff shortages are crippling us. COVID has been a convenient excuse but the driving force behind these shortages is BREXIT: if industries had faced a mass exodus due to the pandemic, then show me the industry to which everyone has jumped ship and is enjoying an abundance of talented employees…

Some of the consequences of the staff shortage have been positive and resulted in long-overdue improvements to our industry: pay rates providing staff a genuine wage they can live on, split shifts becoming a thing of the past, staff getting paid for the hours they work, employers considering their employee’s work / life balance & mental health and generally kicking the industry in to the 21st century. Hopefully this will mean that someday in the future, catering & hospitality can be a genuine career choice for driven, aspirational candidates.

However, whilst these positives sound great, the reality is, we (employers) are faced with rapidly rising labour costs and staff shortages, whilst simultaneously trying to deal with the toughest of external markets. Food costs are on the increase, soaring energy costs and customers who have been re-trained to dine & drink at home whilst their disposable income is reducing by the day. Add in the fact that war chests have been emptied during forced closure and we’re teetering on the precipice…

What are our options?
The most obvious solution but perhaps the most dangerous is dumbing down food… Brands & large businesses using CPU’s, independents buying more meals in would reduce both the skill level and the number of staff required in the kitchen. However, this is a dangerous move: our customers are better educated than ever. They want to know where their food has come from and how many miles are involved in it reaching our plate. Whilst this is a short-term solution, it feels a lot like looking to the past for a solution rather than the future
Perhaps, rather than dumbing down our food, we need to smarten it up! A chef that can take a small number of simple, humble ingredients and turn them into a great tasting dish is delivering on every level:

  • Simple plates require less staff
  • Humble ingredients are less expensive
  • Less ingredients is beneficial during supply chain issues
  • Customers buy in to creativity and lack of food miles

So, skilful, creative chefs are a solution. We now need to look at ourselves as an industry and as businesses to ensure we are well placed to recruit these people. As an industry – do bright, creative, skilful candidates see catering as a genuine career? I mentioned above that we are making big steps to catch up but are we at the point where we are competing for top talent? I strongly believe that parts of our sector are leading the way and offering careers that mean they are attracting the better people in our sector: based on the above they have the basis of a strategy to deal with the problems we face.

The next stage is then to add the training & development to this recruitment strategy: whilst creativity is often nature over nurture, honing this creativity into high level skill can not only save but also generate thousands of pounds: we all know the benefits in recruiting at junior level and progressing to senior. However, only good training will ensure internal progression leads to increases in skill level and the associated benefits.

Internally, we spent a lot of lockdown re-writing our recruitment strategy, reviewing our employee welfare packages, developing a clear, transparent career development programme and looking at how we can continue to upskill our workforce. This has placed us in a strong position to deal with a unique set of challenges. However, our recruitment & development policy is work in progress – the day it stops being so we’re in trouble!

In short, I strongly believe the most forward-thinking, dynamic way forward is to develop and implement a recruitment strategy that offers great candidates a great career, then commit to developing their skills, resulting in the creation of employees that are not currently available in the marketplace.

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