Anyone with even a casual exposure to the hospitality industry will have heard the stories - quite simply, we are in the midst of the worst hiring crisis the industry has ever seen. Want to how bad it is? Writer, sommelier and presenter Samantha Payne spells it out in this powerful piece, informed by perspectives from all over the country.
Let's not sugarcoat things – it's dire in the land of hospitality. COVID wasn't the cause; it just opened the cracks wider of an already fissured industry. Staffing across Australia (and globally) is struggling to keep up with the demand for bars, pubs and restaurants now that the world has opened up again.
It’s not one issue; it is many. From skilled staff moving into other industries, Visa workers leaving during lockdowns, uncertainty or simply general burn-out in an industry that for so long now has demanded so much at the expense of the individual, all leading to a crisis.
I chatted to three incredible people in three very different roles across Australia to get some insight on how bad it is, how the landscape of their jobs have changed and what can be done for the future.
The consensus from the people I've spoken to is that it's not a lack of humans willing to work; it's a lack of people with the skills to do the job. Jacqui Challinor, Executive Chef of Nomad Group with sites across Sydney and Melbourne, extrapolates:
'What we are experiencing is not a lack of labour; it's a lack of skilled labour. We have plenty of applicants, but it's transient casual labour with a low skill level.'
And in her opinion, Sydney seems to be worse than Melbourne from a kitchen perspective.
'We used to use skilled visa workers to round out our teams consisting of local full-timers and part-timers, but that resource pool just doesn't exist anymore.'
Stu Knox, owner and award-winning Sommelier of Fix Wine Bar in Sydney, agrees.
'Crisis is the right word. There are no staff available. If you've got staff, you need to do whatever you can to hold onto them. As things get busier, there's no 'pool' of casual staff to draw from like there used to be. There's a definite lack of skills, especially in wine knowledge.'
It's a problem he doesn't see going away anytime soon,
'A huge percentage of hospo workers were from overseas, and we left it too late for student visas this year, and no one's coming on a working holiday. It's going to be an ongoing problem for a long time.'
This isn't some 2022 problem, either. R&CA CEO Wes Lambert first called the situation out back in 2021.
'With more than ten thousand current job vacancies currently listed for chefs and restaurant/café managers, ensuring businesses can access those trade-qualified migrants is vitally important. Without these changes, many businesses risk a significant reduction in their operating hours or face closure.'
Now, In 2022, we've seen the after-effects with more job vacancies while many iconic and local establishments are shutting.
Speaking to friends overseas after the strict lockdowns, Australia has taken an enormous hit to its reputation as an attractive place to come live and work for hospitality staff. We lost an incredible amount of talent (especially in the wine world) that are reluctant to come back because what happens if we get locked down again, and they get stuck with no financial or community support? Challinor echoes that sentiment,
'The borders are open; there's nothing we can change there, but we can't discount that we (as a country) turfed all the internationals out with during the lockdowns little to no support from the government and as an industry. That makes them reluctant to come back.'
And it wasn't just COVID and the lockdowns' fault; we also have to take responsibility as an industry for people not wanting to enter (or come back) to the hospitality industry. We created this outdated environment of 60-80hr work weeks with no paid overtime, no breaks, etc. You can't blame people for not wanting to be a part of that. As they say, the bill always comes due – COVID just sped up the timeline on payment.
In some cases, the past few years have been a catalyst for a much-needed, entire re-think of business models. For example, the State Buildings in Perth have multiple dining locations, from café to fine dining, and a hotel has implemented 'multi-skilling' as their way to survive through shut borders and a lack of staff.
Emma Farrelly, Director of Wine at State Buildings, explains,
'The last 12 months in some ways have changed for the better for the business. This culture of upskilling has changed the whole community of the building and this cross-pollination across the varied sites we have. Out of necessity, it has forged a nice path for us.'
So what does that path look like that others could learn from?
'We've been 'multi-skilling' from bartending, to working a section, to running coffees in the café – if you're capable, we'll cross-train you throughout all the hospitality sites and even across the hotel so you have more opportunity for work which is very enticing for people.'
People might have failed to realise that the staffing crisis across all hospitality is foundational and fundamental - it stems from the ground up. If pubs don't have people to pull beers, then there's not that ongoing progression up the ranks of hospo. It will be a problem for years to come with this lack of skills causing a knock-on effect. These changes that Farrelly has been a part of at the State Buildings are precisely what we need to start implementing where possible across the whole industry.
So what do we do? A lot of it has to do with cultural attitudes to hospitality shifting not just for those in the industry but also for those dining and imbibing in establishments. Challinor explains,
'We need to start from the ground up and the way we run kitchens, something we've implemented across the Nomad Group. 40- hour work weeks, we are paying people appropriately, limiting or eradicating 'doubles' if possible, treating people with respect and kindness to manage stress and giving them a life outside of the kitchen. Letting go of these outdating visions of the industry, i.e., everyone has to give 110% at the expense of their well-being, time, and mental health. We should look at the levels of commitment based on their job level – you can't expect the same from everyone. That your casuals will be as invested as your full-timers, or even to my level as Executive Chef.'
Knox sees the solution in two parts, a short-term and long-term solution,
'Honestly, I think in the short term, we'll get a bit of reprieve from the WH Visas (working holiday), and that will relieve some of the pressure – but we have to get through winter first. But this is a generational and structural change in the long-term; pay the staff more and charge more to the consumer.'
He also concludes that there needs to be a mind-shift in how we consider hospitality a career path.
"A mind shift from "working in hospo is not a real job" to the European model of a waiter for 45years, treating it like a vocation or trade (which it very much is). But that requires a complete overhaul of how we pay staff and the culture of hospitality.'
*Images sourced from Instagram.