Apprentice numbers are in freefall, the government is very touchy about bringing in overseas workers and the hospitality industry has a huge image problem with young people. So what’s the solution?
“If we keep focusing on traditional apprenticeships as the solution we are stuffed,” says John Hart, CEO of Restaurant & Catering Australia, which estimates that Australia will need 28,000 additional cooks and chefs by 2020, with half of those in NSW alone.
Is Hart right in declaring the apprentice model dead? Well the numbers aren’t pretty. Over the last six years there has been an 18 per cent decline in the number of “in training” commercial cookery apprentices and a 22 per cent decline in the number of “commencements” in commercial cookery apprentices.
“I don’t know when we are going to wake up to the fact that this is an issue about supply and what kids want,” says Hart. “I don’t think it’s about the impression and image of cookery careers. It’s about the impression and image of apprenticeships. Kids don’t like apprenticeships. They don’t get it, they don’t understand it and they don’t want it. We are going to have to start looking at different ways of framing training so that is attractive to the kids.”
Paul Misan, chair of HTN and senior vice president at Tourism Hospitality and Catering Institute, says HTN has to work with the system it has got.
“There’s no magic bullet,” he says. For Misan, the challenges are three fold. Making sure the industry has a very compelling message to sell, getting it heard in a very crowded market place and getting it out sooner.
“We need to get into schools earlier,” he says. “We are currently getting to them when they graduate which is too late. We need a model that will allow us to get in at year 7 and bringing the current people that are influencers that they identify with. It’s about influencing people along the way so when the parents start asking questions and looking at options, that information is there in front of them.”
As far as images go, hospitality has two very different sides. One is the glamour of celebrity chefs and TV cooking shows such as MasterChef. The other is the stories of long hours, workplace abuse and exploitation. The training options on offer also suffer from major image issues, whether it is the low pay, long hours tag for apprenticeships or the potential for exploitation in some vocational education and training (VET) programs.
“The vocational education and training system in this country is dead,” says Hart. “Higher education will take over from VET in the next five years.”
In the meantime many employers are locked in a vicious cycle as they struggle to keep their heads above water while trying to find enough staff to run their businesses efficiently.
“If we want a retention solution we have to reduce the levels of stress,” says Hart. “The labour shortage is a self-fulfilling prophesy because the shorter every business gets on staff the more stress there is on the existing staff and the turnover increases.”
That doesn’t mean employers aren’t bending over backwards to make apprentices want to stay on, as restaurateur Nino Zoccali (Pendolino and La Rosa) testifies.
“We run restaurants on a daily basis, we are not a human resource business, although we have had to become that,” he says. “We are a fragmented industry of largely small operators who are unsophisticated, and do not have psychologists inside our businesses telling us how to better behave.”
Operators are becoming better at it though. “The shortage has really rationalised bad operators anyway, as everyone is behaving much, much better in industry because we are so desperate around supply,” he says.
“We pretty much treat apprentices like gold now compared to the old days.”
Taryn Astill, group recruitment and talent manager at Solotel, feels there is a misconception in what a career in hospitality is like today.
“People might be surprised that is possible to get to a six figure salary in our industry,” she says. “There are a lot of myths that can be broken down around bad pay and long hours that affect the perception of hospitality as a long-term career choice. The days of 80 hour weeks are gone, it’s not how our industry works anymore.”
For Astill, making sure everyone from employers to training providers are working together is key.
“I think what is lacking is partnership,” she says. “Everyone is doing their own thing in their own little silo and trying to do the best they can within that. But we won’t get anywhere until we start breaking those silos down and genuinely partnering between industry and education.
“That might involve a shift in mindset.
If we are to look at the schools when people are a younger age, making their pathways exciting and worth exploring whilst actually teaching skills that will make them job ready, I think there is loads we can do together. Within the industry we have a responsibility to play a part in shaping this, rather than just expecting the schools to get it right on our behalf.”
The lack of communication between the many legs to the training systems on offer makes it hard for time poor employers to understand what’s on offer.
“It’s really complicated from our side to understand what it is all about,” says Zoccali. “If we were to take retention [of apprentices] from 39 per cent to 60 per cent, how much would we still be short, it would be in the thousands, so this is not really the issue.
“You have to look at international apprenticeships, even if it’s controversial. We need a foreign supply of labour. Australia has been in the best part of full employment for the last 23 years. We are in a very buoyant economy and kids have lots of different options. Australian residents are not going to fill these positions.”
Hart agrees, saying the issue of staff shortages needs to be short circuited immediately with a consistent supply of labour in order to keep the industry functioning.
“You have to break the cycle, and the only way to do that is by bringing labour in,” he says.
However, with the government recently scrapping 457 visas and replacing them with two new temporary visas with stricter employment conditions any hope for a surge in overseas workers isn’t coming anytime soon. Zoccali is not impressed with the move, describing it as “very concerning and way beyond disappointing”.
“I think that policy seems to be ever more driven by politics and the desire for leverage in the Senate and marginal vote gathering for re-election rather than implementing the drastically required progressive structural change to foreign worker visa legislation,” he says.
One of his main concerns is foreign chef students losing the opportunity to fully transition to chef trade sponsorship or permanent residency.
“Without much choice, many of us largely staff our kitchens with these students and loss of supply of any kind would be devastating,” he says.
So what can be done in the interim? Zoccali says we need to reimagine the way we train people for the hospitality sector along the lines of a Culinary Institute of America model.
“In Australia, you’re not going to talk about TAFE, so it needs a rebrand, it’s a simple as that,” he says.
Hart is also an advocate for a culinary school path, citing the success of Le Cordon Bleu Australia.
“We have had a culinary school operating in this country for at least the last 20 years,” he says. “The amount of Le Cordon Bleu graduates out there in the industry is huge. Why? Because they have got the skills they need to do the job. The numbers say we are going to have to move towards an American culinary school style model to get to the demand picture we need by 2020.”