Hunger for chefs as hospitality sector faces skills shortage

Range of courses open to CAO applicants as experts suggest graduates need to double

Chef Gráinne O’Keefe, in Pichet restaurant, Trinity Street, Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times

Chef Gráinne O’Keefe, in Pichet restaurant, Trinity Street, Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times

 

The working hours are punishing. The starting salaries can be miserable. The pressure-cooker atmosphere tests the hardiest of souls. Gráinne O’Keefe, a 25-year-old chef, wouldn’t have it any other way.

“It is stressful and extremely antisocial,” says O’Keefe, a senior sous chef with Pichet restaurant. “But it’s hugely enjoyable . . . I just couldn’t do nine-to-five in an office. I want something that’s exciting, that I can move around with. Working as a chef is all those things.”

O’Keefe, from Blanchardstown in Dublin, is in high demand within the restaurant industry – but an acute shortage of chefs is starting to bite.

Right across the growing hospitality sector, hotels report chronic skill shortages among qualified managers, front-of-house, waiting and other staff.

The Expert Group on Future Skills Needs indicates that up to 5,000 chefs are needed annually between now and 2020 to keep pace with demand.

Yet, only about 1,800 qualify each year from certified culinary training programmes.

“Shortages of commis chefs feed into shortages at higher and specialist levels, for example, demi chefs, chefs de partie, and pastry chefs,” the report states.

Across the wider hospitality sector, there are gaps in basic skills and experience at entry and junior level and at management level. There is also a need for tourism entrepreneurs and product development.

It is also an issue for the wider economy. In European terms, we are almost twice as dependent on the hospitality sector for jobs as other countries. It employs some 158,000 people, or 8 per cent of employment across the economy.

This is projected to grow by up to 14 per cent – depending on various economic projections – but only if the supply of skills is available to further the expansion.

A key challenge is the high rate of “churn” within the sector, with high exit or replacement rates.

Politicians and the industry itself are trying to retain staff by providing a more attractive career path for those who want to make the sector a long-term career choice.

The further education and higher education sectors say they are responding by providing a series of routes to jobs in the sector.

Courses

There are a range of courses available for school-leavers or CAO applicants which span all levels from further education courses (ranging from certificates to ordinary degrees); some further education colleges and the institutes of technology offer honours degree programmes (level 8) in hospitality management.

Tony Walker, general manager of the Slieve Russell Hotel in Cavan, accepts that while starting rates can be relatively low, there is scope for rapid progression.

He has had challenges hiring management staff on salaries of anything between €35,000-€50,000, while he says experienced executive chefs at the top of their game in large hotels can earn anything up to €70,000 or €80,000.

The Restaurants Association of Ireland says the shortage of chefs in the country is reaching crisis levels. Its chief executive Adrian Cummins says some restaurants are facing mid-week closures as a result.

“The problem we will have over the coming years is that there simply will not be enough people coming out of the colleges to meet the needs,” says Cummins.

“We believe that there needs to be a greater focus on training through the apprenticeship model, and the Education and Training Boards are the way to make this happen.”

While other large industries in Ireland such as agriculture and fishing have dedicated training centres around the country, he says the hospitality and tourism industry is one of our most valuable assets.

He says we need to dramatically increase the number of training centres.

There are plans for apprenticeship programmes being organised by Solas and the industry which are likely to go some way in easing the shortage.

Ross Lewis, chef proprietor at Michelin-starred Chapter One in Dublin, has blamed the academic system itself which, he argued, is not fit to produce passionate graduates with cooking abilities.

Lewis said the colleges are not producing the next generation of great chefs, that there are better options open to young people in terms of hours and pay, and fewer and fewer culinary students are becoming chefs.

O’Keefe argues, however, that an academic course which combines good practical work can be a great training ground. She completed a two-year course in DIT’s Cathal Brugha Street.

“We did larder classes, pastry classes, theory, French, health and safety . . . But we also did practical classes once a week where we worked as chefs and maitre’ds and members of the public would come in. We got a real sense of what it was like to run a restaurant.”

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