‘We are literally desperate’: Restaurants struggle to find staff amid skills shortage

Josh Dye
Chef Alessandro Pavoni from restaurant Ormeggio at the Spit .
Chef Alessandro Pavoni from restaurant Ormeggio at the Spit . Photo: Edwina Pickles

Sydney restaurants are facing a critical staff shortage despite the high unemployment rate, with owners struggling to find enough workers to fill shifts.

Restaurant and Catering Association chief executive Wes Lambert said members reported having 10 positions for every one qualified employee - a reversal of the situation in many other industries where jobs are scarce.

The hospitality sector normally relies heavily on workers from overseas, most of whom returned home when the coronavirus pandemic struck.

Anna and Alessandro Pavoni own Ormeggio at The Spit in Mosman and cannot find enough staff. They also plan to open a'Mare restaurant at the forthcoming Crown Sydney in December.  

"We're out beating the streets looking for people. We are literally desperate," Mrs Pavoni said. "At this point I'll take anyone who can smile and I'll teach them the rest."

The shortage is so critical Ormeggio has had to reduce its opening hours, despite high demand for bookings. "We depend really heavily on our foreign workforce … with planes grounded we're seriously struggling," Mrs Pavoni said.

Mr Lambert said the lack of qualified workers was now a massive problem for Sydney's reopened restaurants, which can double their outdoor seating capacity after the state government relaxed restrictions on Friday.

"We are going to face one of the largest skills shortages in the history of accommodation and food services if the net migration is to stay negative as the Treasurer predicted, because it takes time for youth and unskilled hospitality employees to be trained up through TAFE and apprenticeships," Mr Lambert said.

Many foreign workers returned home because they lost work when restaurants closed during lockdown and they were ineligible for the government's JobKeeper wage subsidy. 

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In addition the collapse in international travel has halted the usual steady flow of foreign workers arriving, adding to the supply shortage. 

Merivale chef Nigel Ward, who will reopen Uccello restaurant at the Ivy complex in the CBD on Friday, said the industry's over-reliance on foreign labour is "a necessity". 

"There's just a massive shortage of skilled Australian workers who want to do this kind of work," he said. 

But he is excited to have several new chefs in his kitchen who recently completed the Merivale apprenticeship program. 

The latest data from the federal Department of Education, Skills and Employment shows a long-term shortage of chefs in NSW with only 53 per cent of vacancies filled in the five years to 2018. 

The findings reflect fewer people are starting and finishing chef and cooking vocational training courses in the same period. 

Sokyo chef Chase Kojima is facing a shortage of sushi chefs for his restaurant at The Star, and said "it's always a struggle" to get floor staff. 

"I think a lot of people don't see [hospitality] as a proper job. It's more a stepping stone or a job while you're studying," Mr Kojima said. 

He also puts the staff shortage down to an over-supply of restaurants, and partially blames the industry for not offering a clear progression for young workers. 

Back at Ormeggio, Mrs Pavoni said she has had a breakthrough. 

"I haven't had a call from a 15-year-old in years. I've had two this month – local Aussie kids looking for a job. I almost fell off my chair," she said. 

"They've got [minimal] experience but if they can smile and have a crack, I can teach them the skills. The attitude is the hard bit. 

"Guess who's coming in for a crack at that this week?"