Restaurant industry needs to find answers to labour shortage

Issues involved in province-wide problem are numerous and complex, says chef Ben Kiely

When we discuss competition between restaurants we typically mean the battle for market share, that scant portion of the consumer wallet earmarked for dining. Behind the scenes, however, restaurants struggle with a different sort of competition, one that can define their offerings and affect the quality of the experience they offer, namely, competition for talent.

It has been a long running issue for restaurants across our province to find and retain staff in what is well known to be a transient, volatile, and fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants business for operators.

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According to a recent report entitled Metro Vancouver Restaurant Labour Shortage, authored by the British Columbia Restaurant and Foodservices Association (BCRFA), our province will come up short on skilled restaurant labour to the tune of 514,000 workers over the next decade. The report suggests that the lack of qualified professionals in the restaurant industry is largely due to its reputation for long hours, commensurately low pay, and a persistent culture based on outmoded social dynamics. Further, changes at the regulatory level to our province’s temporary foreign worker program have resulted in an inability for operators to staff internationally qualified workers in vacant skilled positions. Meanwhile, the chefs and cooks already employed in the industry are showing signs of professional burnout and are not recommending the profession to their peers. These factors conspire to create a vast chasm between the number of available positions and the labour available to fill them.

The problem could reasonably be re-categorized as a crisis, given that the restaurant industry has historically been the top employer of workers between the ages of 15-22, a demographic that needs to finance their education, their pursuit of professional qualifications and trade designations, all against a landscape of escalating housing prices and soaring costs of living.

Locally, forward-thinking programs like Carson Graham’s culinary arts tract, which feeds into Vancouver Community College’s Red Seal program, equips young aspiring chefs with realistic perspectives on what can be expected of the restaurant industry, while putting students front and centre in a functioning, public-facing outlet for practical experience that will prove invaluable once they are turned loose on the workforce. When I visited Carson Graham for this column at the end of a summer term to try out the Dinner Series fare at the student-staffed cafeteria (which was open to the public on select evenings heading into the break) I was thoroughly impressed with not just the professional kitchen in which instruction took place, but with the exceptional calibre of food being turned out by such young cooks. I was dismayed to learn, therefore, that the culinary arts program was suspended for the 2019/20 academic year, perhaps a close-to-home symptom of the challenges outlined by the BCRFA report.

I recently caught up with chef Ben Kiely for a frank conversation about the restaurant labour crisis in our city. Chef Kiely is a veteran of many illustrious kitchens both European and local, and currently instructs at Granville Island’s Pacific Institute of Culinary Arts (PICA), a highly regarded school that has been on the forefront of grooming culinary talent for more than 20 years. I was most interested to learn from Chef Kiely what he sees as the most viable methods by which to remedy the labour shortage situation.

“There is no smoking gun here,” explains Kiely. “The reasons for the labour issue in this industry are numerous and complex. One significant thing I have witnessed personally is that the economic background of our students has, out of sheer necessity, changed dramatically over the years based on who can afford to live in Vancouver. Entry level cook positions pay notoriously low wages. Pair that with the fact that Vancouver is among the most expensive cities in the world, and now you have a bit of a conundrum. The culinary industry once represented a way for working class kids to thrive, but working class kids are not drawn to this industry in our city as much anymore because they cannot afford to take the sort of low level, low earning positions that are on offer for graduates straight out of culinary school.”

Kiely points to a second troubling tendency in the city, perhaps shedding some light on what the BCRFA means when they refer to the outmoded culture of the industry. “In recent years, without a doubt my best students have consistently been women,” chef Kiely tells me. “These are creative, bright, talented women with so much promise. And yet when I look at the composition of the kitchen line in most restaurants today, women are completely under-represented. Why? Is it a continued patriarchy that goes back to the militaristic traditions of this industry, or is something else at play here? It needs to change, talent needs to be recognized and encouraged to thrive.”

Very much in line with the BCRFA report findings, chef Kiely illuminates another contributing problem: the iniquity of the student Visa landscape.  “A student from abroad used to be able to do their schooling at PICA, for example, and then get a two-year work visa to apply their trade. But now, under current regulations, students can’t stay here after they get the training. They spend all this money to become qualified professionals but can’t work in the very place they learned. We train them up and then send them packing. It doesn’t make any sense. The demand for cooks is allegedly there, but we’re not letting qualified students who graduate take a position in the industry.”

On the topic of the highly publicized demand for culinary talent in our city, Kiely explains that the crux of the offerings are at the lowest level of the industry, entry level, part-time positions that do not necessarily jibe with the high level of knowledge his students can bring to the table or reasonably offer the promise of advancement. He concludes that it can be a daunting proposition for prospective chefs to learn the rigours of classical technique and put in so much time in practical training only to earn the sort of wages associated with unskilled labour in other industries.

Still, amidst these challenges, Chef Kiely remains optimistic. “Listen, I love what I do. Cooking (and teaching cooking) is my passion and I am proud when I see that same passion fuel my students. I think a classic culinary education is hugely beneficial for those who love the industry and are in it for the long term. I do think, however, that restaurants, which are burdened with exorbitant rent and high food costs, need to stop turning to their own workforce to find cost savings. We need as an industry to find a holistic way to foster our talent, which is very much there waiting to be given a shot, and reward people properly for the skills they have cultivated.”

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