Many parts of the country are experiencing staffing shortages. This is great for people like me who teach culinary students. It is not so great for people who own and run restaurants.
One of my responsibilities as the culinary arts instructor at JobTrain is to get students jobs. To do this, I am in constant contact with chefs, kitchen managers, HR people, corporate dining locations, institutions, etc. I also debrief all of my students when they come back from interviews. If you are having difficulty finding staff, I can offer these suggestions based on what I've learned from both sides of the equation:
1. Look at your job descriptions and see if they really match the requirements of the job. Does someone need two to three years’ experience to be a dishwasher or prep onions?
2. Does your interview process really match the job requirements? One of my recent graduates went on an interview for a position working the breakfast bar at a small hotel. He was asked to create a mystery basket four-course dinner for eight people in 75 minutes. When I asked the chef why, I was told that was what he had to do on his first interview out of culinary school, so he makes everyone do it. He thought that was just the way it was.
3. Do your interview questions reflect the specific job? I can’t tell you how many students go to interviews and are asked in writing or orally to list the steps for making all of the mother sauces. Each time I hear this I call the establishment and ask when was the last time they actually made one of the mother sauces. One of these calls was last week. “Gee, I haven’t made them since culinary school over 10 years ago,” was the reply. Meanwhile, how many great students had he tossed aside?
4. Do you conduct background checks? Why? What are you looking for? It never ceases to amaze me how many people cannot tell me what they are looking for when they do a background check. I have no problem if you don’t hire someone because of violence or sex offense issues. But what about a battered woman whose husband hit her with a baseball bat if she wouldn’t write bad checks for him? I had a student like that with a felony record and yet many places rejected her for prepping vegetables. What about a 25-year-old who tried to outrun police while speeding on his motorcycle when he was 19 and has a record for resisting arrest? Are you telling me he can’t work your dish pit? I think that you need to look at background checks on a case-by-case basis and see if what the person was convicted for really impacts their ability to do the job.
5. Take someone under your wing. There are many wonderful culinary schools and academies in this country. For one reason or another many people cannot attend them. Many are expensive. There are many, like mine, that don’t charge the students anything, yet many cannot attend even these because they need to start making money now. Take these people under your wing. Start them in entry-level jobs. Coach them, mentor them. You will probably end up with some very loyal employees. Another advantage is that you won’t have to undo any bad habits they picked up at other culinary jobs, you will be teaching them the way it is done in your kitchen. Many young chefs and owners have forgotten that for most chefs older than 40, this is the way they grew up. They started at the bottom and climbed the ladder. Don’t believe me? Look up how Thomas Keller started in this business and worked his way up to be one of the most successful chefs in the world.
6. Network with the local culinary instructors at all types of institutions. You want first dibs on the new graduates. And, the more they know you, the more likely they are to give you an accurate recommendation.
7. Join the local American Culinary Federation chapter. Most ACF chapters are loaded with students, instructors, owners, etc. I don’t need to tell you the value of networking.
8. Look to the less well-known training facilities. The major culinary academies and the community colleges get most of the attention. However, many areas of the country have great nonprofit or government-sponsored training facilities that have culinary programs. There are also many great high school programs as well.
9. Promote from within. Your dishwasher and prep cooks probably know the operation of your line a lot better than you think. Your line probably contains several who are ready to become a sous. Your current employees know your systems, policies and procedures as well as your menu. Time to move them up and let newbies take the lower spots.
10. Hire for attitude, not skills. Someone with a great attitude and work ethic will make a good employee even if they don’t have the technical skills you want. It is easier to teach someone technical skills then a good work ethic. Hire a new person with little or no technical skills but a great attitude for the lowest positions in your place and let the person work her/his way up. Again, think about promoting from within, and if you wonder about hiring for attitude not skills think again of Thomas Keller.