How can the industry adapt to skilled staff shortages?

skilled staff shortages

Cafés and hospitality venues the world over are facing the next challenge made worse by COVID-19: skilled staff shortages. BeanScene asks how the industry can adapt and attract new workers.

The past two years haven’t been easy for hospitality, with recurring lockdowns and restrictions making it difficult to plan for the future or simply stay afloat. Even as the world opens back up and customers come flooding back to their favourite cafés, it’s not getting easier for many businesses as new challenges present themselves. 

A shortage of skilled hospitality staff is being felt across Australia, and Restaurant & Catering Australia CEO Wes Lambert tells BeanScene cafés are one of the hardest hit segments of foodservice.

“Cafés often employ holiday makers and international students, who aren’t currently allowed into Australia, in multiple positions including servers and baristas,” Wes says. “They are also often smaller, independent businesses, where without enough staff, the business owners are becoming extremely overworked.”

International and state border closures have limited the number of temporary workers flowing into Australia, a situation that isn’t likely to change until at least mid-2022. However, this is not the only reason recruiting skilled staff has become difficult.

Many chefs and baristas holding work visas had to return home after losing work due to lockdowns in 2020 and 2021. According to a survey of more than 500 foodservice business owners from Menulog and the National Indigenous Culinary Institute, 91 per cent of respondents identified an over-dependence on international chefs to run Australian kitchens.

Many local hospitality workers who lost their jobs during COVID-19 lockdowns turned to other industries for work, and Wes says they are disincentivised from coming back.

“There are many cafés reporting they’re having to pay $40 to $50 per hour for baristas and even more for kitchen staff during this critical workforce shortage, and they’re still having a difficult time finding staff,” Wes says.

“Hospitality has built a bad reputation as a workplace and career choice. A big part of that is because of a few bad actors, paying cash in hand or similar practices, and there’s been a concerted effort to improve that reputation. The industry needs to continue improving its reputation to attract and retain Australian staff.”

Business owners aren’t the only ones feeling the sting of the worker shortage. Staff shortfalls impact the employees required to do the work of more than one person. Seth Spurge, a barista for Giocando Coffee Roasters in Devonport, Tasmania, says not all customers appreciate the challenges cafés are facing.

“I think what’s worse is the people who don’t understand or care that we have a shortage and come in acting entitled,” Seth tells BeanScene.

Staff shortages aren’t just being felt in the inner cities. Boxracer café in Warrnambool, regional Victoria, opened its doors in August 2021, just as the state entered its sixth COVID-19 lockdown. Café Manager Cameron Mackenzie tells BeanScene that Boxracer had advertised job openings since April and only received about 10 applicants, most of whom joined the team. However, since the lockdown, he says it has been difficult to keep everyone onboard and replace those who leave.

“We made commitments to people that we could offer them 15 to 20 hours, but then the lockdown hit and we could only secure them about five hours. Many had to get second jobs or leave our industry altogether for warehouse, sales, or retail roles,” Cameron says.

“A lot of those people won’t be coming back to hospitality. Why work in a kitchen for $28 an hour when you could drive a forklift for $40? There’s an element of fear as well. COVID is still around, and working in a warehouse, office, or at home, you’re less likely to catch it and more likely to have a job in three months’ time.”

Cameron says despite offering salaries well above the award rate, he is still struggling to attract new staff.

“We’re even working on offering signing bonuses to chefs, who will receive an additional $10,000 if they stay with us for two years, but even that hasn’t been enough to find someone yet,” he says. “For now, I’m currently working 90 hours per week and am just utilising what staff I do have to fill voids.”

While metro cafés may be able to poach staff from competitors, or baristas can take jobs across multiple cafés, Cameron says this isn’t an option in his tighter knit community.

“Warrnambool isn’t a small town, but it’s not big either and I don’t need that stigma attached to the business. If I take someone else’s staff member, that just passes the problem along to another business,” Cameron says.

“I don’t want to see any more businesses shut down. Warrnambool has a good hospitality scene, but COVID has knocked us about, and it’s not going to get better if we’re jeopardising each other’s businesses as well.”

Many of the workers Boxracer has been able to recruit since opening are juniors with little experience in hospitality. Cameron says training up new staff can be difficult, but it’s an investment in the future.

“Right now, our game plan is to maintain a few senior staff members who can act as a training team for junior workers. We want to teach and have been lucky to pick up two apprentices in the short time we’ve been open who are passionate and want to learn,” he says.

“The hospitality industry has gone from being almost neglected by the government for two years to now, all of a sudden, open back to full swing. It would really help the industry to have better support and funding for training and apprenticeships. With staff limited, the key to success will be having well trained workers who can fill multiple roles.”

Boxracer is not the only business who sees training and education as part of the solution to staff shortages. Black Market Coffee (BMC) in New South Wales saw the impact of staff shortages through its own cafés and wholesale partners.

“A lot of cafés have had to cut their opening hours, some are holding onto the takeaway only model as long as possible to continue trading, and others have made big cuts to their menus,” BMC Owner Angus Nicol says.  

“Only having one barista on shift is dragging out wait times, and most customers are being lenient about it for the time being, but now is also really the time to stand out. If you can push out coffee in two minutes instead of 10 to 20, you’re going to become the go-to. Training the other people in the café, the customer service or kitchen staff, to help the barista is going to help you reach that speed without compromising on quality.”

To address an industry-wide issue, Angus says BMC and its training arm, Black Market Training, decided to open its services to the entire industry. Upskill by BMC was launched in November 2021, offering free two-hour group training sessions to cafés every Wednesday – including those not serving Black Market Coffee – that want to upskill their waiters and kitchen staff to work behind the coffee machine.

“Many cafés have their core team, but the issue at the moment is there’s no one else around to help take the pressure off during busy periods,” Angus says.

“Our hope is Upskill by BMC will allow café owners to fill out their roster around their mainstays, so during rush hour the dishie or waiter can jump behind the machine and take the pressure off the main barista.”

In the long-term, Angus says this program could bring more people into coffee making and all the work that goes on behind the scenes.

“To me, the fundamental answer to staff shortages is bringing more people into the industry, rather than dragging back the people who have left,” Angus says. 

“Being a barista is perceived as a short career path, but it requires a depth of skills and there are so many pathways it can take you down. By focusing on upskilling, showing how much goes on in specialty coffee, will help people realise what a cool job it really is and that you can build a career in it.”

For instance, within a coffee roasting business alone Angus says former baristas can become roasters, trainers, and account managers among many other opportunities. For now however, he says cafés need to focus on the present when it comes to staffing.

“In the next six months we’ve got to assume it will remain the same as it is. We might get some relief from borders opening, but right now café owners need to focus on adapting, keeping their current customers, and moving forward,” he says.

“If you’re going to be one of the cafés that grows and thrives, you need to look at your existing resources, upskilling who you can to keep your quality high and wait times super low.”

At the same time, R&CA’s Wes warns that café owners shouldn’t prepare for an influx of new works later this year to solve the issue.

“Staffing problems and border restrictions are going to continue being a problem around the world until COVID becomes a thing of the past. As we’ve recently seen with the Omicron variant, the situation can change quickly,” Wes says.

“If the staff shortage remains critical across hospitality, we’re going to see ongoing impacts on menu prices, higher prices, and certainly the overworking and burnout of existing staff and business owners.”

Like Cameron and Angus, Wes sees a greater focus and government support of training and education as key to not only addressing workforce shortages now, but in the future as well.

“In the short-term, we need a solution to immigration. In the mid-term, we need continued state funding for micro-credentials and short courses. In the long-term, we need more funding for traineeships and apprenticeships,” he says.

“Due to multiple factors, many young people are choosing not to enter into the hospitality industry, which means they’re not building critical social and customer service skill.

“There are many wonderful positions in hospitality that you can take and jobs you can do that are transportable not only in Australia but around the world. We need to improve the reputation of hospitality as a workplace and its potential as a career choice to win back the hearts and minds of the public.” 

This article appears in the February 2022 edition of BeanScene. Subscribe HERE.

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