We must be open to who can contribute to hospitality industry

Food writer and regular Echo contributor, KATE RYAN shares her opinions on the hospitality staffing crisis, as we continue our series this week on the challenges facing the sector
We must be open to who can contribute to hospitality industry

Kate Ryan, www.flavour.ie

ATTRACTING people into the hospitality industry is an evergreen issue. Everyone is complaining about something: the hours are too long, the pay is not enough, the margins are tiny; toxic workplaces, bad business practices, rude customers; burn out. There are many things that need to change but, however well paid and respected, it’s still work that requires graft, grit, and an ability to thrive, not just survive, under pressure.

It really isn’t a career for everyone, which only adds to the challenge of finding enough right-minded people to work in an industry which is overburdened with demand.

In addition, years of undervaluing food education at school diminishes the window of opportunity for children and young adults to learn about food, be curious about where food comes from and, crucially, how to cook.

We’re outsourcing our food needs more than ever, resulting in fewer opportunities for children to learn at apron strings.

Busy home life compounds that further. Recent research shows that, despite the disruption to home-life-routines from Covid-19, “58% of Irish people eat on-the-go, and 26% buy ready-made meals from a convenience retailer at least once a week.”

We are eating more than ever but cooking at home less.

From takeaways to home kits; a fancy coffee every day to a quick pick up from the deli; weekday lunch or a weekend slap up meal, our demand for food to eat made by someone else is pervasive, and it’s on the rise.

This should be land of milk and honey territory for hospitality, but instead I’m reading about restaurants and cafes reducing the days and hours they’re open because of lack of staff.

MTU Cork, (formerly CIT), has crafted a reputation as a Centre for Culinary Excellence offering a range of courses in culinary skills, culinary arts, hospitality, and tourism.

For this academic year, MTU Cork launched a new degree, a Bachelor of Arts in Home Economics and Business. MTU have partnered with UCC to provide a protective path for graduates to continue their studies and gain a Professional Master of Education to go on and teach.

The course is the first of its kind since to be offered in Ireland since 1952 and seeks to address the problem of a lack of home economics teachers, and professionals, in Ireland. The career of a professional home economist can take them anywhere from the classroom to a TV production crew, publishing houses for cookery books and magazines, as well as restaurants, cafes, and all manner of food businesses. But not everyone fits the graduate mould from the get-go. A chef can be both super talented and self-taught, or come to the industry late in life from a circuitous route.

In February 2020, MTU Cork hosted a dining event with a twist. The Open Door event was a four-course feast served to 52 guests – prepared by seven inmates of Cork Prison. The inmates were taking part in an 8-week intensive course of study with the Department of Tourism and Hospitality lead by Culinary Arts lecturer, JJ Healy. 

More than half the guests were prospective employers from the hospitality industry who had “indicated their interest and willingness to offer participants employment on their release.” 

MTU intends to the run the programme again and I am glad for that. It’s a model I first came across in 2019 during a visit to Cardiff. I stumbled upon a charitable initiative called The Clink, a not-for-profit restaurant ran out of a few prisons around the UK. We booked in for breakfast at The Clink at Cardiff Prison. The food was great, as was the service; not to mention the palpable feeling of food as opportunity. Those that exit the prison system after working in The Clink are supported by the charity to find work after release. In 2021, The Clink aims to “deliver training for up to 2,000 men and women in prisons to achieve qualifications in hospitality and gain employment upon release, proven to dramatically reduce reoffending.” The initiative has been running for 12 years and has reported reduction in reoffending rates in each of the past ten years. It’s a win-win for society and industry.

We simply must be more open about who can contribute to this industry. Not everyone wants to be a graduate, and not everyone has the calling from the time they’re born.

In a 2013 interview for The Guardian, Delia Smith said, ‘nobody teaches people how to cook anymore.’

Hopefully, MTU will have us awash with Home Economics teachers in a few years’ time.

Just as well, Darina Allen’s recent campaign to get practical cookery classes back on the school curriculum has almost reached the 4,000 signatures needed to place the petition before Minister for Education, Norma Foley.

There’s a huge cohort of people who are ready for the opportunity to work, yet often overlooked by employers.

Chad Byrne is the executive chef at The Brehon in Killarney, also proprietor of this summer’s most Instagram-ed food truck, The Hungry Donkey; and pre Covid, founded Chef Collab – his response to providing up and coming culinary talent a platform to showcase their ability working with established mentors for paying diners.

It was a great concept, and one I hope will return in time, but it was Chad’s whole-hearted embrace of working with Ability@Work for the Chef Collab events that really stood out. Ability@Work is a “dedicated supported employment service bringing young people with intellectual disabilities and/or autism closer to the labour market.” For the events, two young people supported by Ability@Work tended front of house, working hard, and having a ball. To me, this was not about teaching someone with a disability how to do a job; rather, it was about everyone else learning that disability is not a barrier to employment.

Perhaps, then, a good place to start is how the work and the workplace is spoken about. Language can elevate the perception of hospitality or beat it into the mire further.

Recognition plays a huge part in the enjoyment of our work. Feeling valued; enjoying opportunities to progress, be rewarded, acknowledged – this is the good stuff that fuels us through the not-so- good days. It’s what helps someone position what they do as a career, not just a job.

What if an employee was supported and felt thankful, not grateful?

An entire industry cannot talk its way out of a crisis, but what if it worked harder at accentuating the positive aspects of working in hospitality? Yes, we need change; but we need ambassadors, too.

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