Bakers Journal

Canada’s Labour Crisis: Strategies for the Hospitality and Food Service Industry

May 21, 2008
By John Walker

According to the most recent
Labour Force Survey, the employment rate in Canada jumped to 63.5 per
cent, the highest level in over three decades.

According to the most recent Labour Force Survey, the employment rate in Canada jumped to 63.5 per cent, the highest level in over three decades. These numbers aren’t surprising, seeing as the economic boom and shifting demographics have led to substantial year-over-year, national employment increases and record-low unemployment rates across the country, particularly in western Canada. However, a combination of this prosperity, along with an aging labour force has nearly emptied the pool of qualified workers needed to fill the positions available at hotels and restaurants throughout the country. Currently employing over 1.7 million people, Canada’s hospitality sector will need another 300,000 professionals by 2015 if it is to maintain its competitive and global edge.

As the head of George Brown’s Centre for Hospitality and Culinary Arts, it would be tempting, if the situation were a temporary blip, to embrace the employment situation as an opportunity; a chance to simply market the school as a gateway to a guaranteed job —already, we are working to produce more of our graduates, who are in high demand by an industry starving for talented and trained workers. However, with the national labour shortage expected to reach nearly one million workers by 2020, it’s safe to say that we’re already very much on the brink of a crisis. And without any sound, long-term solutions, the industry risks becoming the first real casualty of the “talent war.”

The effects of a foodservice and hospitality workforce shortage are already being felt by employers, and sometimes near desperate searches for staff are becoming more common. CHIP Hospitality, one of Canada’s leading hotel and resort management firms, is an example of a sound business facing the challenge. And while the labour challenges are thus far invisible to customers who continue to receive exceptional service from CHIP’s properties, finding the staff to run their businesses has proven to be an ongoing issue.


From my perspective, educators generally must begin to pay much greater attention to developing strong and meaningful links with industry, as we do at George Brown. This allows us to design courses in a way that ensures students get the very “real-world” skills necessary to succeed in the workforce. For instance, we are constantly updating and improving our baking and pastry arts programs, which now include a two-year Baking and Pastry Arts Management diploma program and Baker/Patissier Apprenticeship. We’ve also made it possible for workers without the time to dedicate to a full-time program or apprenticeship to launch their career in the business by taking a pre-employment baking course. At our college we work closely and regularly with industry advisors to improve the quality and industry relevance of our programs. We have recently attracted 25 respected, sector-experienced practitioners to join our faculty, and a comprehensive program redesign has resulted in more than 1,000 externships a year.

Our graduates have the qualifications and necessary experience to hit the ground running. But, of course, quality grads are not enough. In the face of a labour shortage, we need to produce more graduates.  To that end, George Brown is expanding its chef school and hospitality learning and training facilities by as much as 50 per cent, with the goal of producing an extra 3,000 workplace-ready graduates for eager industry employers over the next five years.

Educators are only one part of any coordinated solution. Once students have been trained and have found employment, operators still face what is currently among one of their biggest challenges: employee retention. Even though business owners are well aware of the costs associated with high turnover, too many in the hospitality industry are still reluctant to make changes and, in some cases, continue to encourage the transient nature of careers in the business. In the past, we have been inundated by employers looking for quick fix and requesting our graduates. In short: no long-term staff planning and thinking about providing value-added employment teasers. However, it is refreshing to learn that good operators are embracing things like benefits, career planning and retirement programs. Incorporating standard human resources practices, long part of other sectors, is now absolutely necessary.

Informed employers are not ignoring the current situation hoping it will right itself, and are already taking the steps necessary to offset the labour shortage through a series of progressive partnerships with educators. For instance, George Brown is helping to staff CHIP’s western Canadian operations with students through a work placement program upon graduation. In return, CHIP provides students with the training, experience and development opportunities necessary to build their careers and grow along with their employer. It’s an arrangement that can be made with little impact on the bottom line or to the overall business plan.

The outcome of doing nothing will be the collapse of robust sector growth and an inability to properly serve the customer, who has expectations of unquestionable service and quality.  However, changes are now underway — by schools to educate more graduates, and by industry to better satisfy employees — that give hope that tomorrow will bring continued prosperity.

John Walker is dean of George Brown College’s Centre for Hospitality and Culinary Arts.

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