Restaurants bitten by skills shortages
Acute skills shortages and a plethora of new restaurant openings means finding and retaining good staff is the hardest it has been for a long time. Ellen Ann Durey investigates.
When Dan Hong, the executive chef at Sydney’s Ms G’s and Mexican cantina El Loco, sent out a message on Twitter that he needed chefs, there was urgency to the tweet that encapsulated the plight of the restaurant industry.
“I NEED CHEFS RT RT RT RT,” wrote Hong, who is opening a new restaurant, Mr Wong. The capitalisation of the wording and repetition of RT, which stands for retweet – whereby recipients pass on a tweet to their own followers and broaden the reach of the message – implied there was no time to be lost.
Four in Hand owner/chef Colin Fassnidge took up the RT missive, adding his own call to arms to his retweet: “I’ll take some too!!” he added.
That two well-reputed Sydney chefs are urgently seeking staff underscores the severity of the skills shortage.
Restaurant consultant and foodService columnist Tony Eldred says he’s never seen a skills shortage quite like this before.
Eldred’s hospitality staff development service, which helps restaurateurs reduce staff turnover by accelerating the development of key employees, is currently at capacity as owner operators look to beat the skills crisis.
Mark Scanlan, who co-owns two Garfish restaurants in Sydney, says he is always looking for staff.
“Sometimes we can luck out and fill a position relatively quickly – in a couple of weeks. But other times it might take three or four months, even longer,” Scanlan says.
One solution is for his employees to work more hours, but that often accentuates the problem with chefs getting “burned out”.
To help retain staff, Scanlan pays above award rates and tries to create “a happy working environment”.
“We don’t have head chefs or sous chefs that yell and rant,” he says.
He also advertises extensively through social media, including the company’s Facebook page, and has a designated careers page on its website too.
While the government is said to be negotiating a deal with industry that would allow hospitality employers to bring in workers on a short-term visa of two to three years, Scanlan says more immediate changes could be made by extending the hours that overseas students are allowed to work from 20 to 30.
The duration of the six-month working holiday visa could also be extended, and the process of sponsoring staff on 457 visas simplified for small businesses.
“Unfortunately, the government has made even that process harder,” Scanlan says. “Big business…have designated people managing that sort of thing. For small business, when often the owner is hands-on, it’s a very onerous task to try and go down that path.”
Clovis Young, the chief executive of the Mad Mex Fresh Mexican Grill chain, says the biggest challenge is finding the right people.
“The right candidate wants to work two or three years, not three months,” he says.
Eighty per cent of his staff are non-Australian residents. But he avoids itinerant working holiday visa holders.
“We end up with a lot of students… The problem is at 20 hours a week we end up having to have a lot of students,” Young says. “Instead of having 18 staff well-trained, we have 25 staff who don’t work as well together.”
Young has just initiated a “refer a friend” scheme, whereby staff receive a $500 bonus if they refer someone who successfully completes training and takes a job.
Eldred says that training staff is a good retention tool but it costs around $100 an hour, which many restaurants can’t afford. The best thing a restaurateur can do is recruit properly in the first place.
“You should recruit people who have an intention to be stable in the industry not people who are just doing it to earn a bit of money for a short period of time, because essentially if you can’t keep a staff member for two years you really can’t afford to train them,” Eldred says.