Chef shortage: ‘It is not a desirable career any more’

At the culinary courses in Killybegs, only 12 of 80 places are filled. What has gone wrong?

Catering students Andrew Kelly, Lisa Wilson and Róisín Boyle at Killybegs School of Tourism. Photograph: Joe Boland/North West Newspix

Catering students Andrew Kelly, Lisa Wilson and Róisín Boyle at Killybegs School of Tourism. Photograph: Joe Boland/North West Newspix

 

For TV chef, food author and hotelier Brian McDermott, being a chef is more exciting now than ever before. Despite this, however, there is a serious shortage of young people opting for it as a career.

Such is the shortage, “the reality is that kitchen porters are becoming chefs. If an employee shows any ability or awareness, they are given chef duties within a couple of days. That is addressing a short-term solution for employers”, he says.

The new academic year has shown clearly that school leavers’ appetite for culinary careers is decreasing.

The Killybegs campus of Letterkenny Institute of Technology is an example of colleges negatively affected by the fall in CAO applications for hospitality, tourism and culinary arts programmes in recent years. Only 12 of 80 possible spaces were filled on two full-time culinary arts courses at the Co Donegal college this September. Staff at Killybegs say this is a reflection of national trends.

Yet according to the Restaurants Association of Ireland, the country will need 9,500 chefs to fill vacancies in 2019. With so many jobs on offer for graduates, the question is: why do so few want to train for them?

Brian McDermott
Brian McDermott

Established in 1969, Killybegs is Ireland’s oldest dedicated tourism and catering college outside Dublin. The school is renowned for turning out skilled chefs including McDermott, Adrian Martin and Gary O’Hanlon.

Dr Seán Duffy, head of the school of tourism at Killybegs, says this is a national issue, but the school is approaching the problem with a mix of full-time, part-time, industry-based and Springboard programmes to meet learners’ and industry needs.

Some students are taking a different training route. The beginning of the 2018-2019 school year saw 32 non-traditional learners coming to the seaside campus for a Springboard certificate in culinary skills. This was a record number of applicants for the largely free and part-time upskilling course.

Dr Ciarán Ó hAnnracháin, head of department of hospitality and tourism. Photograph: Joe Boland/North West Newspix
Dr Ciarán Ó hAnnracháin, head of department of hospitality and tourism. Photograph: Joe Boland/North West Newspix

Treated as ‘fodder’

Duffy points to one possible reason young people are not attracted to studying to be a chef. It comes down to marketing. “Being a chef is not being promoted as a good solid career, like what Engineers Ireland are doing. We don’t have that slick element from a united industry to say professionals are needed. That’s what’s missing.”

He says a number of hotels work closely with the college to train and enhance their current workforce, but some other businesses have turned second-level students off by employing them as “fodder” for summer work.

“The industry as a whole needs to recognise people are a valuable resource,” Duffy observes.

Culinary arts lecturer Tim Dewhirst says change has to come “from the top” to improve working standards for chefs across the board.

“Being a chef is not a desirable career any more. Working three shifts a day, which is a 92-hour week, is just too much out of your life. I think millennials want to have a life and a job, so it’s not being chosen,” Dewhirst says.

Dr Sean Duffy of School of Tourism and Catering. Photograph: Joe Boland/North West Newspix
Dr Sean Duffy of School of Tourism and Catering. Photograph: Joe Boland/North West Newspix

“If something could come down from a governing body and say that hours need to change, that might make it more desirable, but then the price of your meal is going to have to go up”.

Duffy adds: “A large section of hotels are recognising that they should be getting rid of split shifts, paying people appropriately, giving days off. Then you have others looking for the quick buck. They are burning out students and turning them off the system.

“Students come back to us and say they don’t want to be a chef if that’s what it’s like. We have to show that it’s not all like that.”

A student’s experience

The student body across all years at Killybegs is about 250 this year, with a 60-40 split in the number of students studying full-time and part-time. Seventy-six per cent of students work while studying.

Nathan Gillespie (20) is in his fourth year of an honours degree in hotel, restaurant and resort management. The Moville native followed in the footsteps of successful family members who trained in Killybegs. Having had a positive industry experience, Gillespie is upbeat about his future.

Fourth year student Nathan Gillespie. Photograph: Joe Boland/North West Newspix
Fourth year student Nathan Gillespie. Photograph: Joe Boland/North West Newspix

“I did work experience in a hotel that employed me for two years afterwards. It was only for the college that I got that job. The hotel had more faith in me because they knew what I was doing here.”

Third-year student Lisa Wilson is similarly confident about the opportunities her degree will present. She drives 111km from Buncrana and back each day to study culinary arts.

“My end-game is to find full-time employment in a bakery,” she says. “I was a stay-at-home mum for 20 years and have six kids so I am limited to where I can go, but there are great opportunities for young people. I’m going to play it by ear and see what I can come up with.”

McDermott proudly boasts of his culinary arts degree from the college in the early 1990s. “Killybegs shaped my life and my career. The success rate is next to none. When you came out that gate with the Killybegs stamp of approval you could work anywhere.”

Major shortfalls

The Donegal food ambassador acknowledges there are major shortfalls in the industry when chef supply cannot meet demand.

“The model of hospitality business needs to change. I see that as an exciting opportunity for everyone.”

Dr Ciarán Ó hAnnracháin, head of department at Killybegs and member of the Hospitality Skills Oversight Group, says: “Industry needs to buy into the notion of recruitment, training, development, career enhancement, which will lead to retention.

“The phrase I’ve heard is ‘We need a body’ – that’s not an attitude to have in terms of recruiting anybody. Now the crisis is so severe the industry are afraid to let anybody go travel or go out one day a week for training, because who is going to replace them in the hotel or restaurant?”

“Something has to give,” says Ó hAnnracháin.

The Hospitality Skills Oversight Group Report 2018, published on September 19th, made recommendations for five priority areas in industry training and employment.

The report concluded that recent issues are not unique to Ireland and no one stakeholder has the solutions. A successor group will be established to continue developing the skills requirements of the burgeoning hospitality industry, with Fáilte Ireland playing a key role.