Of all the issues faced by our industry right now, one of the most challenging is a shortage of chefs. Skills shortages in catering can have a debilitating impact on businesses, affecting growth potential and in some cases quality of output, particularly if junior chefs are overpromoted to fill gaps.
Of course, it would be true to say that there are skills shortages across a wide variety of sectors. We’ve all seen the news reports in recent weeks of truck driver shortages and talk of the army being drafted in to ensure supermarket shelves remain stocked. Whilst it is certainly true that macro issues such as COVID and Brexit have had an impact on chef shortages too, it would be misleading to place the blame for the current crisis solely there. The problem predates COVID and has been a prime concern for some years.
There are many reasons why this is the case, including
- Increased demand for talent from the proliferation of pubs serving food in the context of pre-COVID industry growth
- Low unemployment for a sustained period in the UK, which makes recruitment more difficult in a competitive employment market
- A dearth of ‘talent pipeline’, with too few students studying catering and a relatively undernourished apprenticeship approach – all of which means too few young people are choosing to become chefs
- Continued concerns over hours, pay and conditions in the profession, which leads to high turnover rates
- The ongoing impact of Brexit and COVID, as already highlighted.
It’s a difficult challenge for the industry and there is certainly no quick fix. But you only have to search the industry’s news sites or pick up the magazines to find some sensible suggestions in order to move things forward.
I’ve trawled the industry’s top titles to collate five of the best ideas to help ease the staffing crisis faced in UK commercial kitchens.
- Create a coherent careers approach
This is a long-term plan. Too few children grow up learning how to cook and I’m a big believer that the industry needs to get into schools to drive such interest. Apprenticeships should be expanded, and greater use should be made of the Government Kickstarter Scheme, which offers wage support and grants to employers taking on 18–25-year-old apprentices. The Master Chefs of Great Britain and other organisations do a great job of supporting young chefs, but closer connections need to be forged with catering colleges, with businesses offering placements, masterclasses, and mentoring schemes.
- Focus on staff development
A structured approach to staff learning and career development would greatly benefit the ability to retain staff. Many chefs leave simply for more money, with an individual career plan, they can feel more invested and can foresee career growth and monetary reward for their loyalty.
- Drive incentives to work
In an industry with tight margins, it may be difficult to radically increase the pay of chefs, but it is a nettle that needs to be grasped. Even outside of simple pay increases, the use of retention bonuses, for example, could help to reduce staff turnover.
- Be inventive with shift patterns
Chefs work incredibly long hours. This fact can have a very depressing effect on the numbers of those who might consider becoming a chef as a career choice and can significantly inflate the numbers of those leaving the profession seeking a better work/life balance. Creative thinking might help. Moving to shift patterns such as four days on and three days off could help mitigate these issues. Through this approach, intensive and long workdays are balanced by a good amount of time off. It works, for example, in the offshore industry, why not catering too?
- Create better working conditions
It has been unfortunate that many catering environments have been subject to toxic or unpleasant working environments. It is time the industry really modernised and took human resource factors and the physical and mental wellbeing of staff much more seriously. Of course, catering will always have its differences from other sectors, but it is time to find balance between the needs of companies and the needs of employees.
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