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Getting what you pay for

The baking industry needs to pay a family wage and consumers need to be willing to support it

Written by Martin Barnett   
Every morning, hundreds of bakers across our continent stock bread shelves and pastry display cases with wonderful nutritional and delicious products, using complicated formulas and sophisticated equipment, coupled with centuries of passed down knowledge and skills. Quite often they have been up all night preparing these products. Nearly every consumer will enjoy some form of bakery product every day, from a burger bun to a muffin, a dessert or a chocolate and everything in between!

So why do I hear complaints from bakers about not being able to hire or retain skilled staff, about the attitude and expectations of young people and the quality of education, both secondary and post secondary?

This is often accompanied by the usual “back in my day,” or “nobody knows how to work anymore,” or “I don’t know what they teach them in school these days!”

A couple of months back there was a discussion on the Bread Bakers’ Guild of America website decrying the lack of talent and work ethic from job applicants for our industry. There were the usual rants from my generation about the younger generation, but nothing constructive came out of this brief interchange.

As a past bakery owner (and employer), I empathize with the sentiments, but as a trainer and supplier of “qualified” graduates, I wonder if there are some fundamental issues within our industry that we should be examining. I thought it would be interesting to look at our society’s consumer habits as they pertain to the baking industry and the quality of trained tradespeople, and also to make comparisons in other parts of the world.

I was fortunate to travel to Australia for a long sabbatical and I am reminded of a conversation I had with Brett Noy from the Southern Cross Baking Group (www.southerncrossbakinggroup.com.au), captain of the Australian Baking Team and owner of Uncle Bob’s Bakery in Belmont near Brisbane.

We were comparing North American and Australian wages for bakers.

A graduate from baking school Down Under can expect to earn $45,000 per year and that will go up for three years. A lead hand can expect to earn $70,000 and up.

For that money they work their butts off and can support families.

I told him that a lot of bakery owners want to pay entry-level minimum wages in North America to their production staff.

His reply, and one that I often repeat to our trade association, was: “Pay peanuts, get monkeys!”

Unfortunately, Australian post-secondary funding has been cut, and there is pressure to do more training in house than at the trade college. Already we are hearing the same complaints regarding the quality of trainees that we hear on this continent. The same goes for the United Kingdom, where fully equipped training bakeries in colleges are sitting empty of students.

We were entertained by the Ecole Boulangerie et Patisserie (EBP) on our recent sojourn to Paris for Europain. This school has been teaching bakers for nearly a century! We don’t have to explain here that the baking industry in France is entrenched in daily life and a huge success. It is interesting to note that apprentices in France go through a three- to five-year trade education, depending on which level of certification they are seeking and attend school regularly while they are working. Their education and training is free and is funded through bakery business taxes. A new bakery owner will not be granted a business licence unless they have a diploma. At EBP the students work for two weeks and attend school for two weeks. It is interesting to note that everyone buys into the system and thus the development of basic skills and the quality of product is consistently maintained. (It will be interesting to monitor the support for this training in light of the recent Euro crisis.)

If, as a society, we do not recognize the baking trade as a legitimate career, where one can earn enough money to raise a family, we will only attract low-performing and transient workers.

As a society if we expect cheap baked goods, pastries and desserts, it is not conducive towards the training and retention of good quality tradespeople.

It is interesting to note that a doughnut in Australia (a country that has high food prices across the board) sells for about $3.50, a dessert in a restaurant is often $15 to $18, and a decent loaf of bread costs $5 or more. No one complains.

How did we get into this situation of ours? In order to relieve some of the long, brutal hours that bakers worked in the middle of the last century we encouraged ingredient manufacturers to come up with cost-saving products. The byproduct of those developments was that less skills were needed to become a baker. Couple that with the Chorleywood-style processes for industrial bread making (no-time doughs made from flours pre-mixed with additives) and we have created a perfect storm for our industry in regards to our lack of skilled workers, especially in a time when our young peoples’ expectations of work and conditions are different from our parents’.

It will take a grassroots movement from society to change the way bakery products are consumed and purchased in North America. It will also take lobbying from bakery owners to government funders to increase the level of training provided in post-secondary institutions to support the service that society is demanding. There are now signs that consumers are willing to pay more for a quality product, in some markets, but as an industry we have to do a better job at promoting the benefits of these products and defending the price point.

However, the biggest lobbyists and those who have time to go to government meetings are often those in our industry who are not concerned with maintaining traditional expertise and intensive handwork and skills. Their role is as mass producers of many generic units. The types of skills required to operate these factories are not the same as those required to run traditional full line bakeries.

It is time to have a conversation, especially in Canada where we have a smaller population base with a unique lateral geography and demographics. What kind and what quality of products do we want our bakers and patissiers to produce? Do we agree that the bakery workers should be fully trained specialists in their chosen industry and rewarded with a decent living wage? Do we, in our society, demand the best quality of bakery products and are we willing to pay for the level of skill that is required to produce these? And finally, how do we balance the needs of our emerging workforce with the lifestyles that they feel entitled to?

Many thanks to those bakery owners, of industrial as well as small, who do pay decent remuneration to their staff and support training institutions. There was no intent, actual or implied, to pass judgment on the different styles of baking processes in this article.


p36_Martin-Barnett2  
   
Martin Barnett is instructor and chair of the Professional Baking Department for the Culinary Institute of Vancouver Island University (Malaspina campus).