How Australia can address the great hospo staffing crisis

Barb Dight, owner of Italian restaurant Cicciolina in St Kilda.
Barb Dight, owner of Italian restaurant Cicciolina in St Kilda. Photo: Chris Hopkins

Hospitality is in crisis. Again. Diners are keen to eat out but there aren't enough staff to cook the chooks and pour the pinot. The evidence is everywhere: in job market statistics and the laments of industry players. You can deduce it from the "join our team!" job ads in windows at the local shops, in countless Instagram posts.

It's evidenced in the fact local bistros are being forced to close two nights a week, the waiter at a hot new restaurant doesn't know how to remove a cork, the restaurant-owning mum at school drop-off looks particularly harried.

"It's the worst it's ever been," says Wes Lambert, chief executive of the Restaurant and Catering Industry Association. "There are tens of thousands of open positions around the country, ranging from barista to head chef and everything in between."

Nina Alidenes, owner of One Penny Red in Sydney's Summer Hill.
Nina Alidenes, owner of One Penny Red in Sydney's Summer Hill. Photo: Louie Douvis

According to the National Skills Commission's Recruitment Insights Report, 63 per cent of hospitality employers surveyed between March and October 2021 reported difficulty in recruiting, compared to 41 per cent of employers across all industries.

Staffing was fraught before the pandemic. Australians tend to see hospitality as a stopgap rather than a career and reputational issues around workplace compliance haven't helped attract candidates. There's no getting around the fact that restaurant hours are anti-social. The work is physical and hard on the body. All these factors can impinge upon mental wellbeing.

But a constant inflow of international workers ensured continuity: students, backpackers and skilled sponsored workers kept pans sizzling, plates swooping and pots sudsing. COVID-19 put an end to that. Between December 2019 and May 2021, more than 660,000 temporary visa holders left Australia, many of them restaurant workers.

There are tens of thousands of open positions around the country, ranging from barista to head chef and everything in between.

Wes Lambert

None returned, and even though the borders will reopen to non-Australians from December 1, no one knows how many internationals will rush to come to Australia. Those who did remain often took jobs in other industries.

It's dire but it can't be terminal. We love eating out too much. The hospitality industry has always been big on problem solving and we've seen over the past 20 months how nimble and innovative restaurants can be. So what are the solutions to the biggest workforce shortage the industry has ever seen?

Train beginners

In the 28 years that Barb Dight has been running Cicciolina in St Kilda she's always employed international students to wash dishes. When her latest crop moved onto work in their field of study, Dight posted on neighbourhood Facebook groups. "I had so many great kids apply," she says. "Most of them haven't had part-time jobs for two years. Sport isn't really happening. No one is going on big trips. They're an untapped resource." She's shortened shifts to accommodate young, inexperienced workers. "We are paying them a bit above the award to retain them and we are training them up so some might move onto other roles," she says. "They are hard workers and they are lovely."

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Larger employers are also offering training for those without experience. Australian Venue Co has launched a program called Bamboo to fast-track staff into jobs at its 160 pubs nationwide. The two-day intensive includes training in three-plate carrying and beer pouring. When placed in a venue, employees are matched with a mentor to help them settle in. Crown Melbourne has partnered with the Australian Hotels Association and the Victorian Chamber of Commerce and Industry to offer free week-long hospitality fundamentals courses via its jobsinhospo.com.au platform. Last week, Star Entertainment Group inducted 40 Sydney students in a new four-day training blitz that covers table clearing, tray carrying and other bedrock skills. "The Star Entertainment Group has shifted its focus towards hiring for aptitude and attitude," said a spokesperson.

Pay more

At the beginning of the pandemic, Stacey Edwards was sommelier at Igni, one of Victoria's best restaurants. She's now a train signaller for Metro. "If I went back to what I was doing – and this isn't about where I was working, it's the industry generally – it would be a $20,000 pay cut. I love wine but that would be a hard decision to make for my family."

Some employers are paying more for staff at the moment but workers don't necessarily trust the increases. Alper Turgut is a hospitality worker from Turkey who arrived on a student visa and is now on a 408 COVID-19 visa, which allows internationals to remain in Australia if working in critical industries, including hospitality. "The minimum offer used to be $22-$23 an hour, now it's $28-$30," he says. "But we know that when the borders are open, students start to come and employers have more options, they will try to reduce wages again."

Some restaurants have 'hired' robot waiters due to staff shortages.
Some restaurants have 'hired' robot waiters due to staff shortages. Photo: iStock

Itxaso Sanchez is an international business student from Spain. Aged 42, she's been working in restaurants since she was 16, but feels that her experience isn't always reflected in the pay grade she's offered. "I am a professional," she says. "I'm not at the first level. But when I came here three years ago, I didn't know about FairWork and the award [which increases according to expertise and responsibility]. I was working for $20 an hour. Now I finally feel that I can be listened to. We have been slaves for years."

Restaurants haven't necessarily been raking in profits: the industry operates on thin margins, putting downward pressure on wages. Increases generally need to be passed on to consumers. "The time to put your prices up is now," says Julien Moussi, owner of Only Hospitality which has 18 Victorian cafes. "We pride our business on looking after our staff and paying them really well. That's why we are more expensive than the average. We charge $6 for a coffee on weekends at Buckley Sorrento, and we are proud to do it."

His workforce of 350 is short about 50 staff, so he's recruiting aggressively by offering above-award wages and even free accommodation for the Sorrento cafe, which is an hour out of Melbourne. "We are paying staff 20 per cent more than we would have 18 months ago," he says. As well as higher menu prices, he's transparent about add-ons, seeing it as part of customer education. "We do weekend surcharges because of staff penalty rates and we do credit card surcharges," he says. "We think it's better to itemise it so the penny drops for customers."

See untapped potential

Shaun Christie-David runs Enmore's Colombo Social, a restaurant and social enterprise for people seeking asylum. "None of our people would have been employed at another restaurant," he says. "We put them into courses we develop with hospitality experts. Some can't read or write so we adapt for them. We create pathways for long-term opportunity."

Some of his most successful hires have been older women. "Women over 60 are such an untapped resource," he says. "They have passion and experience and they are beacons for the community." Full-time may not suit those same women. "But can we hire two part-time people instead?" asks Christie-David. "The days of 60 hours a week are dead, or they should be. It's toxic. Flexible working arrangements have to happen or we're screwed."

Labour economist Shashi Karunanethy predicts a change in workplace dynamics in a report prepared with rostering platform Deputy. "Work shortages have resulted in more bargaining power to the hospitality worker," he says. "Most of the gains are non-monetary attractions like more flexible and secure working hours and more flexibility with childcare pick-up and drop-off."

Tech solutions

There is a huge incentive for businesses to trade as much as possible. "We know there is $200 billion additional household savings as a result of not being able to spend during the pandemic," says Karunanethy. "But the shortage of workers is impeding capacity to ride the expenditure boom. Technology such as ordering and paying from an app can help businesses."

Jason Chang from Calia Grill in Melbourne's Chadstone has added a robot to the staff mix. "It replaces half a staff member," says Chang of the novelty wheeled creature that ferries plates from kitchen to table. "It doesn't have sick days, it can work 24 hours a day: so far, so good."

Be nicer

Front-of-house worker Itxaso Sanchez is waiting for her second vaccination but she's not sure if she will return to restaurants, despite fielding constant job offers. It's partly because understaffed restaurants create extreme pressure for the workers that are there. "Every night is a battle," she says. It's also because lockdowns far from family in Spain have been especially draining. But the real kicker is customer behaviour. "The last year, more than ever in my life, there were really rude customers," she says. "I love my profession and some customers really appreciate you but it's exhausting to try to deliver pleasure to those who want to be served like kings or queens but treat us like shit. And be careful if you're not smiling enough because you'll get a one-star review."

Alper Turgut feels that front-of-house workers are often crushed between the expectations of diners and owners. "Emotions are very involved in this industry," he says. "You argue with your manager by the back door, then you're expected to smile for their guests. It's breaking hearts and putting people in a hard position mental health-wise. And if you share this kind of thing, people say, 'It's hospitality, what do you expect, you should be more resilient.'" Many colleagues have moved on. "The lockdown periods were an awakening," he says. "People started searching for other jobs – anything but hospitality."

Open the borders

Operators have been crying out for Australia's borders to reopen so seasonal and semi-permanent workers can flood in. "There's an immediate need for skilled and experienced hospitality professionals as we enter summer," says Restaurant and Catering's Wes Lambert. "We call upon the federal government to create a special new visa to encourage up to 100,000 hospitality professionals to enter Australia and make up the shortfall on a pathway to permanency."

Lambert notes that this short-term solution should be partnered with longer-term fixes around training and reputation. "As an industry, we have to change hearts and minds," he says. "We need to ensure that bad actors who have exploited their workforce change their ways. They need to realise that their most valuable asset isn't fit-out or location or hats or stars. It's the people who work for you."

Reframe business 

Social media is dotted with laments that restaurants can't staff as many services as they used to. Nina Alidenes owns One Penny Red in Sydney's Summer Hill. In 2019, she offered lunch Wednesday to Sunday and dinner Tuesday to Sunday. Now she's scaled down to Sunday lunch and dinner Wednesday to Saturday because she can't staff the extra shifts. "I've spent 25 years trying to be busy, to fill a restaurant," she says. "Now I have the demand but it's heartbreaking because I can't staff it."

But when she pulls back from the immediate anguish, she can see positives. "When you start in business, you're told that the busier you are, the more money you'll make," she says. "We're figuring out it's not quite the case. We may actually be left with a similar margin each week." Staff retention is now at the heart of everything. "This is now about balance, making sure the staff we have stay in the business because they're not destroyed by overwork," she says. "The buoyancy in the kitchen is back. There's actually a lot to be grateful for."