The chef shortage: A solvable crisis?

Martin-Christian Kent looks at the problems in catering.

Few hospitality businesses in the UK have been untouched by the difficulties of recruiting the right staff to work in their kitchens. The chef shortage continues to be a fundamental and high-profile challenge for the sector, and the issue is now having a real impact on business strategy and the way restaurants and food businesses of all types operate.

But while it is often seen as a problem of insufficient supply to meet growing demand, the reality is more complex.  

Attraction and retention challenges

Figures suggest that there are almost three times as many chef students as are needed to meet the current projections of 11,000 chefs needed by 2022. So, if we have so many students studying on full-time chef programmes, why do we still have such a chronic chef shortage?

For those involved with training and development, there is the additional challenge that the sector is not seen by many as an attractive career path option and working conditions in particular have received a lot of bad press.

One student we interviewed for recent research (The Chef Shortage: A Solvable Crisis?) said: “It’s a job that nobody really wants to do and when people say….I remember when I was in school, and people would say, “You want to be a chef? Like, why?” People were just like, “What’s wrong with you?”

Many quit when they see the reality of working as a chef or are put off entering the industry through a poor work placement or work experience. 

Developing student chefs

One of the critical changes since the 80s is that skills has become a devolved policy area, which means that the system, and often qualifications, are different across the four UK nations. The situation in England doesn’t appear to entirely replicate across the other three home nations.

When the 706 qualifications were scrapped in England in the early 90s, they were replaced with National Vocational Qualifications (NVQs), which were work-based qualifications requiring ongoing assessment.

They were designed by employers, for employers, and should never have been introduced into full-time provision. However, they were, and their very nature meant that there was little consistency in what chef students were being taught.

The assessment model also meant that employers were often frustrated that students were entering the workplace without the skills and knowledge required.

Ten years ago, NVQs were replaced with the Professional Cookery Diploma which, in many respects, provided businesses with an updated 706 Diploma, complete with a practical end test and a grading system. Most full-time chef students now take this programme.

When it comes to the training and development of student chefs, a number of factors come into play which are contributing to the problem. First, too many students are on the wrong course and fail to complete their studies. “Most people give up halfway,” one student told us.

“I think, on our course, there’s only two of us that are still in from level 1. The others dropped out. They couldn’t take it – and this is just the beginning.”

Expectation vs reality

Students’ initial experiences of the kitchen is another of the main factors in discouraging them from entering or staying in the industry. This includes poor work placement experience. Many quit when they see the reality of working as a chef or are put off entering the industry through a poor work placement or work experience.

Some do enter the industry, but leave within the first year.

Colleges are in a no-win situation when it comes to reflecting the needs of the sector. If they provide broad content, covering the essential skills and knowledge, they are open to the accusation that they are teaching outmoded skills. On the other hand, if they use more pre-prepared food, they are accused of dumbing down.

There is also a question of the perceived relevance of the course content. According to one student interviewed: “I notice that, in college, I am being taught different skills and I go into the workplace and have yet to be asked to use any of them. I also notice the difference in what I’m taught and then what I’m expected to know, or what I should know.”

The challenge for many colleges is how close they are to local employers. In a survey of hospitality departments, 38% described their interaction with employers as ‘could be better’. There is clear room for improvement and it needs businesses, as well as colleges, to change the way they interact.

This will be critical if the college is going to deliver the new T levels, given the prominence of four months’ work placement.

A consistent theme emerging from interviews with head chefs was that it doesn’t matter what qualification new chefs enter the industry with, as long as they have passion and creativity. Addressing these issues are absolutely fundamental to solving the chef shortage.

One critical area for attention is examining the culture of the kitchens and the management skills of senior chefs. The issue of poor management, and intimidating, aggressive and sometimes sexist cultures comes up time and again and is one of the key reasons chefs leave a business.

These must be addressed, which is why many businesses are striving to improve their chefs’ people management skills and improve the physical environment in which they work.

This piece will be concluded next week.


About the author

Martin-Christian Kent is executive director of People 1st


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