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Report on Business Chef, server, hotel or restaurant manager: the ongoing struggle to find and keep staff

It’s harder than ever for small business owners to find the right workers. The Battle for Talent series looks at hiring difficulties in several sectors and offers solutions.

Yannick Bigourdan owns a restaurant called The Carbon Bar in Toronto and a string of other small food and retail businesses. He says hiring in the Greater Toronto Area is difficult, partly because of the region’s growth. 'If you look at the amount of restaurants that have opened around the GTA in the past 10 years, it’s staggering how many new positions are open in our industry.'

The Globe and Mail

People in service businesses such as restaurants have been saying that it’s hard to get good help since, well, forever. But Yannick Bigourdan says it’s now harder than ever.

“I think it’s getting worse,” says Mr. Bigourdan, owner of a restaurant called The Carbon Bar in Toronto and a string of other small food and retail businesses.

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“Finding people is the biggest challenge in the restaurant industry now. It’s scary what’s happening in the hospitality industry in general. We need more chefs, servers, managers – people in every aspect of our industry,” he says.

Beset by a tight labour market, an explosion of new restaurants that all need staff and competitive and legal pressure to pay better wages, Canada’s hospitality and tourism industry is searching for ways to find more people to say, “Hi, I’ll be your server tonight.”

“If you think the fight for talent is difficult now – it is going to get a lot worse,” says Rob Gifford, executive vice-president of the U.S. National Restaurant Association Education Foundation (NRAEF).

In Canada, in the related hotel industry, “the labour demand far outreaches what’s available,” says Philip Mondor, labour market specialist and president of Tourism HR Canada, an industry group.

On the hotel side alone, there’s a shortage of more than 10,000 workers needed to fill jobs. Mr. Mondor produces charts to show that by 2035, the demand for hospitality-related labour will have grown by 41 per cent since 2010, while the work force will grow by 25 per cent.

That means 240,000 jobs will go begging at restaurants and hotels in Canada 17 years from now.

There’s already a shortage across the board of people to fill key jobs in the food and beverage industry, Mr. Mondor adds. The list is long: cooks, executive chefs, kitchen managers, servers, hosts, bakers, bartenders and delivery drivers.

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It’s possible, of course, that in the future some of this work will be taken up by drones that will deliver your pizza or robots that can fluff your serviette or whip up a mean crème brulé. But that’s cold comfort right now for restaurateurs like Mr. Bigourdan, who have to make adjustments virtually every day for a shortage of staff.

He needs about 400 people working in his various businesses at any given time. While not all the positions are full-time, it’s helpful to have regulars, or even people who can be counted on to show up for shifts they have booked.

Yet often it’s a struggle to find people who will commit.

These days it’s difficult for restaurants and hotels to get people to show up for a single shift or a job interview, says Erika Mozes, co-founder and chief operating officer of Hyr, an app that lets restaurants hire temporary and shift workers. Launched in February 2017, Hyr operates in Toronto and New York; it’s one of several online platforms designed to make it easier to connect prospective service businesses like restaurants and hotels with gig and freelance workers.

Usually the no-shows have landed a better offer, Ms. Mozes says.

Mr. Bigourdan adds, “People want to work as servers and earn enough for a semester of school or a car. Even chefs want to work in one place for about a year or a year and a half, learn all they can and move on.”

The reasons are demographic and economic, Ms. Mozes says. “There are lower birth rates and fewer people in the work force and more restaurants and hospitality businesses opening. If affects every size of these types of business, from small ones to large corporations.”

Mr. Bigourdan agrees that his businesses are competing as much for staff as for customers these days. In the Greater Toronto Area, it’s partly because of the region’s growth.

“If you look at the amount of restaurants that have opened around the GTA in the past 10 years, it’s staggering how many new positions are open in our industry,” he says.

Workers’ expectations are growing too, which makes people in a tight labour market even more choosy.

Research reported in the U.S. NRAEF’s industry publication Nation’s Restaurant News said that Generation Z workers (born after 1997) surveyed were looking mainly for a good workplace culture, even more than a pay cheque.

The NRAEF survey, scheduled to be released this month, found that 82 per cent of Gen Z respondents got their first jobs at restaurants, but 75 per cent didn’t stay in the industry.

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Another problem Mr. Bigourdan flags is the rising cost of hiring restaurant workers. In Ontario, the previous Liberal government passed minimum wage and worker protection legislation that new Progressive Conservative Premier Doug Ford has vowed to scrap.

Mr. Bigourdan says he doesn’t want to wade into the politics involved, but he does note that after the labour law took effect, “in our business we saw right away that we tightened our schedules [hiring fewer people for shifts]. So, I don’t think the labour market really gained.”

In a tight job market for finding good staff, Mr. Bigourdan says he simply tries to build good relationships with promising prospects he hires.

“People do a couple of shifts, we talk, we get to know each other and if we like each other maybe we can offer a more permanent position,” he says.

Beyond that, he says he looks to community colleges for graduates of programs that develop higher-end skills.

“To learn to be a chef, a hotel or restaurant manager ­– all those skills are crucial for the development of the tourism industry,” he says.

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