Retaining talent: a younger perspective

15 April, 2016 by
Madeline Woolway

They see hospitality as a stepping stone, not a career path. They don’t want to do the hard yards. They’re unrealistic about the realities of the work … Ask a seasoned chef or restaurateur about the next generation of foodservice professionals, and you’ll get a long list of reasons why the industry struggles to attract and retain the right people.

But if we’re serious about addressing the skills shortage, shouldn’t we be asking young chefs, waiters and front of house professionals what needs to be done to keep them motivated and inspired? Isn’t that the best way to ensure the industry survives and thrives in the future?

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Here, three of the industry’s most promising young hospitality workers share their two cents’ worth.

Brooke Adey, restaurant manager at Yellow, Sydney

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Having spent eight years at the family run Chianti restaurant in South Australia before moving to Sydney, Brooke Adey is under no illusion that her long tenure is representative of other front of house professionals.

“For me to spend eight years at Chianti, working my way from food runner to section waiter to restaurant manager – that’s a story that’s probably few and far between these days,” she said.

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While she understands and appreciates that hospitality is the stomping ground for cash-strapped holidaymakers and university students, it’s not fair for the industry’s veterans to paint all young workers with the same brush, she said.

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“Obviously front of house in particular does attract some career professionals and then some people that are there just to bide their time between jobs … but for those that are committed to working in the industry, I’d say that their transient nature is merely about them trying to progress as quickly as possible.”

She said that more often than not, aspiring chefs and waiters have professional goals that they want to achieve, and they want to achieve them quickly.

“I think that my generation is quite ambitious. We want to get to where we want to be quite quickly, and I think that tends to mean that we’re quite transient. We’re always looking for the next best thing or the next best opportunity, rather than biding our time.”

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Adey recommends that employers do what they can to motivate and inspire their younger team members. Kids these days are looking for meaningful professional development, not just a pay cheque.

“This younger generation really looks for mentors rather than just bosses; people that they can work with and learn from and who can help guide them, rather than someone that just comes to work and tells them what to do everyday,” she said.

“It’s about continuing to challenge and engage with your staff. I find that the minute anyone starts to become bored or complacent in an environment, they’re more likely to look for their next option. Also, it’s about identifying staff that want that opportunity to move forward, and giving them more responsibility … If they feel like they’re involved and part of the way that the venue moves forward and is run, then they’ll feel like they’re helping to build something rather than just coming to work everyday and doing a job.”

Victor Liong, chef and owner at Lee Ho Fook; Lawyers, Guns and Money, Melbourne

Having started his apprenticeship at the relatively late age of 21, chef Victor Liong, now 31, has achieved a lot in a decade. He’s worked with some of the industry’s best, including Mark Best and Dan Hong, and now has two of his own venues under his belt: Asian fusion diner, Lee Ho Fook, and recently opened caf Lawyers, Guns and Money.

Liong now oversees his own team of young up-and-comers and, funnily enough, he sees himself (and others like him) as key contributors to the skills shortage.

victor.jpgImage: abc.net.au

“It’s really hard. Everyone is like me. The problem is, I blame myself. I blame my high achievement and my ambitiousness. Because people look at me and my restaurants and say ‘Well, he’s 31 and he has two restaurants. How hard can it be?’

“We’re in a climate where everyone who’s got ability is going out on their own. … They’re like me. They’re thinking ‘I can make money for someone else, or I can make money for myself’. We’re in a time and an age where we’re all self entitled and we all think we deserve our little slice of the pie; we all think we’ve worked hard enough. I’m just a sign of my time, what can I say?”

Speaking more about the longevity of businesses than its workers, Liong said operators would do well from having a more realistic – and less romantic – approach to their work.

“People need to realise that hospitality is a business. Running a restaurant is a business … It’s not about your dream to cruise around a dining room in a nice dress picking up nice plates, then dropping them down and talking about nice wines.

lawyers.jpgLawyers, Guns and Money is Liong’s latest opening.

“People come into hospitality with all these dreams and aspirations and that’s not a bad thing, but they also have to understand that it’s not about the table settings, it’s about how much money you can make during today’s shifts so you can keep working there,” he said.

Tomorrow’s restaurant owners are lucky to have a plethora of inspiring, successful mentors to learn from, Liong said. The very same people that he worked under are still guiding young chefs and waiters through their formative years, and that means the future for the industry is very bright, he added.

“All the old guys are really cool. I used to think they were all grumpy idiots who were really opinionated, and now I’m turning into one of them … I still keep in touch with Mark Best, and all the guys in Melbourne have been nothing but supportive: Shannon Bennett, Guy Grossi, Andrew McConnell, Frank Camorra. All these guys have more than one restaurant under their belt and more than one failed restaurant under their belt. They’re generous with everything – advice, information, suppliers. This is one of the best industries to work in in terms of support and morale.”

Frankie Bonadio, assistant restaurant manager, Conservatory, Melbourne

Frankie Bonadio has a very good understand of how the hospitality industry operates. That’s due, in part, to the fact that he basically grew up in the Italian restaurant his father operated in Melbourne. It’s also because he’s worked on both sides of the pass. He spent about three years waiting tables before completing an apprenticeship and working as a chef for another three years. He’s now the restaurant manager at Conservatory and one part of the job that he takes great pride in is working with his 40-odd team members and helping to motivate and inspire them.

He’s adamant that more training is needed for the industry to attract and hold onto talent.

francesco-bonadio.jpg“When people are skilled and capable of dealing with the challenging hospitality environment they’re generally more likely to feel positive about it. When someone leaves a shift and they feel like they’ve failed because they weren’t able to keep up or they didn’t know what a shiraz is, they’ll lack confidence because they feel like they’ve failed.

“Skills allow people to feel like they’ve achieved something, and that they’ve really succeeded. And when you succeed you want to do more of it. So I think training is at the core of it.”

Having regular one-on-one catch-ups with employees is also important, Bonadio said, because it shows that you’re approachable and interested in their progression.

“It’s about proactively catching up with the staff on an ongoing basis, rather than waiting for something to go wrong, then sitting them down and saying ‘Hey, this isn’t on.’ It’s more about saying ‘How are things going? Where do you see yourself in three years? What are you getting out of this? What could you be getting out of this?’ Some of those questions are more forward thinking rather than reactive and I think people really appreciate that.”

But we need to walk before we run. We need to attract more people to hospitality, and we need to do that by enticing them when they’re young, Bonadio said.

“Once upon a time, being a waiter was a profession. But not anymore; being a waiter is a way to feed yourself through uni … Maybe the reason why I love hospitality so much is because I was sitting in a restaurant when I was five, and just watching. I wasn’t doing anything, but I was there. And now I love it. I don’t think that’s a coincidence.”

conservatory.jpgConservatory. Image: www.mydestination.com

Young children should be exposed to the restaurant world in whatever way they can, and schools should be promoting the benefits of working in the industry so that once the students graduate, they’ll not only have a realistic understanding of the realities of the job, they’re also more likely to see it as a genuine and exciting proposition,” he said.

“The media makes the industry seem one way, but reality doesn’t always meet that. Before too long, if they choose to work in hospitality because of what they’ve been exposed to in the media, eventually reality is going to kick in and I think that’s where they may be disappointed.

“I think getting people into the industry is going to be determined by how we treat employees; how we talk to them in regards to customer service; how we get them inspired to want to create experiences for others; how we get people to realise that creating a great experience for someone on a Saturday night can be just as fun as having a night out on Saturday night. If enough people think that way, then enough people will stay and I think that’s tough to do, but again, I think it starts from when people are very young. We need to put customer service and hospitality in their blood.”