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The hospitality trade faces chronic staff shortages, with hundreds of jobs advertised online at any time. And don’t try telling Restaurant Association president Mike Egan cooking and waiting positions aren’t skilled.

“I make the analogy that if you were just a waiting robot the Japanese would have invented one and you’d be out of a job,” says Egan. “The right waiter with the right personality can make or break a dining experience.

“But it’s an unusual skill. It calls for the ultimate in multitasking and reprioritising while on the job. Some people are fantastic at it and others struggle.” Filling restaurant roles is a problem all over New Zealand. Egan says a survey of association members found critical staff shortages in regions such as Southland and Otago.

A bid to match unemployed beneficiaries with jobs going begging in the industry has met with only limited success. Egan says pre-employment training offered at the end of last year in a joint effort with Work and Income NZ attracted just eight people to the 40 funded places.

The industry faces particular challenges: comparatively low wages and unappealing hours. And those pay rates aren’t going to improve suddenly, given a typical eatery’s profit is about 3.5 per cent of sales and restaurant customers are price-sensitive.

“We’d love higher wages but [would you] pay $6 for a coffee and $25 for a simple breakfast?”

Egan says tips help some staff earn good money, and “because there is a skills shortage, if you’re any good at the industry, you can go into management. I know people who’ve been snapped up by big overseas restaurants and earn hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.”

It’s a source of frustration that the trade doesn’t rank high in the popularity stakes when students and their parents sit down with school career advisers, he says.

“We do struggle getting school-leavers to see that this industry has a career path and that they can have a great future in it.” The rash of TV cooking shows has brought people into the trade, even if, as Egan says, the programmes tend to emphasise the “fun bits” rather than the daily grind of working in a restaurant kitchen.

Yet the industry is not without its poster girls. Samoan-born Monica Galetti, from Lower Hutt, had her first taste of the industry on a school trip to a cafe at age 15. She was inspired to train as a chef, went to London after completing a course, and for more than a decade has worked at top restaurant Le Gavroche.

“She’s a great role model,” says Egan. “She has her own TV show, writes books and is inspirational when she visits New Zealand and talks at schools.” Egan, who has interests in Wellington and Auckland restaurants including Monsoon Poon, Boulcott St Bistro and Osteria del Toro, says good people are so hard to find that if someone promising comes knocking, he takes them on, even if there’s no vacancy.

“If anyone decent walks in, even if we don’t have a job, we’ll create one for them. Anyone with good experience and the right personality gets snapped up.”

Egan says working holiday visas, which entitle 18 to 30-year-olds from many countries to work here for a year, are a lifesaver for restaurants, most of which have foreigners on staff.

– NZ Herald

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