With New Zealand facing a shortage of qualified chefs restaurant, chain Sky City is betting on reducing the shortfall with an international recruitment campaign targeting Europe, the United States, South Africa and the Pacific Islands.
Industry experts agree the country is short of about 1,200 chefs and, with tourism growing and placing pressure on restaurants and bars, many of those working in the catering industry are being asked to work overtime on a regular basis to help compensate for the skills gap.
Sky City's head of human resources, Paul McKloskey, says his plan includes attracting 75 chefs within the next two and a half years, and he has the support of the Department of Immigration.
The company has been granted approval by the government to hire chefs from the United Kingdom and Pacific Island regions. Work visas are already approved for chefs hired by Sky City that started its hunt this month for chefs to work in its establishments in Auckland, Queenstown, Darwin and Adelaide.
"It's apparently the first time something like this has been approved for this sector, and only the second time the government has agreed on such a large-scale recruitment drive outside New Zealand," said McKloskey.
Sky City needs more than 200 chefs to work in its 18 bars and restaurants Also included are the convention center kitchens, two hotels and its catering division.
"It's going to be an ongoing campaign," McKloskey says. "Seventy five people is not that many. But we are hoping that the success of this campaign and the benefit to our operation, together with the flow-on effect to other hospitality sectors of having this influx of people, will encourage the immigration department to increase the number for pre-approval for us and other large organizations."
"The skill level of chefs we are looking for are those with a little experience to up to five years experience."
"We are open to people who want to take the offer as an entry into New Zealand as there will be plenty of opportunities - they will find they will advance pretty quickly as there is a high turnover of chefs and opportunities come up frequently."
So far the company has spent NZD$20,000 in advertising abroad and is about to start advertising at industry fares and in trade magazines. McKloskey says it is promoting jobs with the company using the Kiwi lifestyle as a carrot.
"The proposition is lifestyle, that's why people will want to move to New Zealand," he says. "From a chef's perspective there's the Pacific cuisine and the quality of food in New Zealand. One of the other things we want to do is satisfy the OE experience by offering staff the chance to work in Auckland during summer and Queenstown in winter."
Chef Gary Miller is business development and media director of the New Zealand Chefs' Association, a national organization representing professional chefs in New Zealand. He says the key reason for the shortage is that many Kiwi-trained chefs head offshore to work in places such as Australia, Britain and Europe for three to four years after qualifying.
"The shortage of chefs is not just an issue for New Zealand," he says. "It's a worldwide problem and everyone is competing for good staff."
Miller, an executive chef at the Christchurch Casino, says: "New Zealand is 1200 chefs short right now."
"Not only does the industry want to attract Kiwi chefs back home, we need to attract chefs who want to move here to work. But we are also not training enough chefs to meet demand."
Dennis Taylor is program leader for professional cookery studies at the Christchurch Polytechnic Institute of Technology. It currently has more than 220 trainee chefs signed up to its certificate in professional cookery. However, Taylor regularly sees trainees leave the $9,000 two-year course half way through.
"Some students come for one year and don't return for the second," he says. "It means there are many part-trained chefs out there. While they can get work quickly, their careers are limited due to a lack of training."
Gary Miller says many people see being a chef as a glamorous job, with many young people inspired by the likes of celebrity chefs Jamie Oliver and Nigella Lawson.
"But it is hard work," says Miller. "To get to the top of your game you have to complete the training and put the hard yards in."
It seems those "hard yards" may well be why there is a shortage of chefs. Taylor points to the catering industry's long hours, low pay, high pressure working environment and unsociable hours as factors in the shortage of qualified staff.
"Many entry level catering jobs pay minimum wage," he says. "Why would people want to work in demanding roles when they can work in jobs that require almost no training or skills and earn the same money?"
He says the retention of skilled people is the key to solving the chef shortage in the long term.
McKloskey says Sky City is also working with industry partners worldwide by creating an exchange system for chefs.
"We had the worldwide chefs association conference here last year and developed some good links with people throughout Europe, South Africa and the States. Visiting industry colleagues agreed that the chef shortage should be a shared problem because, inevitably, we are going to be losing chefs to each other.
"Companies taking part can stay in touch with their former staff and should get a better qualified chef returning to them."
Gary Miller of the New Zealand Chefs' Association agrees.
"There are so many career options here and chefs from abroad will be welcomed. But chefs from Britain may take our way of working hard to get used to. Us Kiwis will mix and match food in different combinations to what they may be used to. It can be a little hard to get used to - but once they see the freedom we have to create new dishes they'll love it."
"Working here can be a real eye opener, a breath of fresh air and a whole new way of working."
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