Bakers Journal

Features Business and Operations Staffing
Shifting Times and Values


December 4, 2007
By Andreas Schwarzer

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“One thing is for sure: the times are gone where you can push young people to their maximum.”

Back in the late ‘70s, when I did my apprenticeship in baking and pastry arts, the leadership style was strictly autocratic. The boss was the boss and you didn’t challenge his or her rule or offer alternative suggestions to the supervisor’s dictates.

The apprentice was told what to do and had to adopt very quickly into a very fast working environment.

While completing my apprenticeship, I really questioned whether this industry was the best place for me to be. There were times when I dreaded going to work. I was often afraid of even entering the pastry shop because of the workload and the stress associated with my daily activities there. Everything in this café and restaurant was of first-class quality, from the production to the finishing of the products. All items where made from scratch: ice cream, candies, chocolates, puff pastry, croissants, cakes, tortes, individual pastries and other baked items too numerous to list. Every two weeks I worked the night shift, preparing orders such as ice cream coupes and savoury items such as voul-au-vent shells filled with hot venison, and decorating dessert plates. Besides filling all the orders, I also had to prepare the mis-en-place for the next day. The mise-en-place list was long; if I had a very busy night and a great number of customers to serve, it was very often difficult to complete. But you wouldn’t dare leave work without preparing all the work you were assigned. I should also mention that in the evening shift, I worked by myself from 4pm to 10pm. At the time, I thought it was a really negative situation. I left there after three years and started to work in smaller privately-owned bakeries and café’s and we worked very hard. But at all of these places, the owners took good care of their employees. Yes, we worked very hard. Six days a week, 10-hour days. If it didn’t kill you it certainly made you tougher. But I did survive the three years without quitting. And I was able to finish top of my class. Thinking back to this experience, I know it prepared me for the world. It has made me better able to cope with challenges in the workplace. A year after my apprenticeship I was drafted into the army for 15 more months of anguish and challenges, both physical and mental. Luckily for me, my apprenticeship made adjusting to such a harsh environment more manageable.

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The positive learning elements from all these experiences were many. I learned how to organize myself, gained some much-needed confidence and through repetitiveness I was able to refine my skills. Several years after my apprenticeship I really started to value the quality of training I received from my employers and the trade colleges I attended throughout the three years.

I have not stood still since then, and have grabbed every opportunity to learn that presented itself to me, which in turn has brought me to where I am now, an instructor at a culinary college. The learning curve here has been even more drastic and I’m consistently exposed to new challenges.  One of the biggest ones has been a shift in how students want to learn and the commitment they’re willing to offer. Most students these days are much more demanding and have higher expectations from the school in which they enroll and its instructors. The most important factors for young people looking for jobs these days are: they like to have fun at work, be kept busy and learn at the same time, work eight hours maximum and they definitely want their two days off. In my first five years as an instructor, I was mostly teaching students with previous industry experience who wanted to re-train or enhance their existing skills. These students knew what they wanted: they had ambitions and goals they worked toward. Many students these days come directly from high school. Many are indecisive, unable to set goals and hope to have most things handed to them. For obvious reasons, this can be a real
challenge for college instructors. I often ask myself, “Should I make students happy at school and cater to them so they will give me a good instructor’s evaluation? Or should I use a similar approach to the way I learned, a stricter environment to make them more successful in the working world, at the same time risking a bad evaluation?”

One thing is for sure: the times are gone where you can push young people to their maximum. I have tried to apply moderate pressure on these students, however it had negative consequences, and if I continue to pressure them, I would have to look for new employment. Young people, just beginning their work life, often have unrealistic expectations about what they can achieve. My objective for the students I teach is that when they enter the workforce they have very little or no skill deficiencies. Unfortunately I believe that’s very difficult to achieve in this day and age of political correctness and sensitivity. Many young people have not been taught the importance of communication, respectfulness and punctual behavior. These basic skills should be taught by their parents, long before they enter college. We the instructors are here to teach them an industry-related skill, not basic social skills. But my hands are tied; my responsibility is to teach students a practical skill, and make their transition into the workforce as realistic as possible. If we use a strict classroom environment, the younger students would rebel and learn only to a limited extent. It is a very different story when young people start in the workforce at a younger age, for example the 18-year-old student who already has a part-time job and the responsibility of supporting themselves. These students take their education much more seriously and put much more effort into it.

Without hesitation, I say this to anyone just finishing high school: before jumping into a college program, take the time out and work for a few months or longer in a fast-paced culinary environment and find out if this field is for suitable for them.

Andreas Schwarzer is an instructor with the Baking and Pastry Arts program at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology. He can be reached at andreas.schwarzer@sait.ca. To further discuss this issue, please go to Andreas’ website at www.ffc.ca and click on the message board link.


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