Operators Look Overseas and Inwardly to Fill the Labour Shortage

labour shortage

It’s every kitchen manager’s nightmare — starting a shift with a bare-bones staff, realizing the missing hands in the kitchen will slow down preparation times, dull service standards and perhaps send frustrated customers to the door. 


The labour shortage is increasingly becoming a problem for restaurant operators across the country. According to the Ottawa-based Canadian Tourism Human Resource Council, Canada will deal with a long-term labour deficit of more than 136,000 full-time workers in the restaurant industry by 2030.

Jordan Romoff, operating partner at the Toronto-based hospitality search firm Lecours Wolfson, is concerned. “We expect 2014 will be a year of heightened competition for market share across all foodservice segments. Sourcing, securing and retaining top talent will be the biggest challenge and the most important ingredient for success in the coming year.”

East versus west
Despite the desperate need for Canadian-grown labour, foodservice operators are increasingly turning to the government’s Temporary Foreign Worker Program to fill the gaps in their kitchens. Case in point: in 2012, 213,573 temporary foreign workers were admitted to Canada, almost two-and-a-half times as many as in 1995, according to the October 2013 report “Economic Implications of Recent Changes to the Temporary Foreign Worker Program,” by Christopher Worswick, a professor at Ottawa’s Carleton University.

Unsurprisingly, the use of temporary foreign workers is becoming common in booming industries, where foodservice attendants are abandoning their jobs for higher-wage gigs in Newfoundland’s offshore oil industry or Alberta’s energy and construction sectors. “The labour shortage situation is most acute in Prairie provinces, and with the Temporary Foreign Worker Program it’s no surprise close to 90 per cent of all temporary foreign workers that are in our industry are in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba,” says Mark von Schellwitz, VP, Western Canada for the Canadian Restaurant and Foodservices Association (CRFA).

Jay Gould, president of Toronto-based New York Fries and South Street Burger Co., says his franchisees in Alberta are depending on a foreign workforce to stay afloat. “Commerce is doing very well in Alberta, has been for years, and as a result, there are pretty good job opportunities. When that happens, it’s a little harder for us to attract — at reasonable rates — decent staff,” he says. “In Alberta, we’ve been sponsoring people from mostly the Philippines for probably five or six years now. And, that’s our operators doing that. My guess is perhaps 25 to 30 per cent of our workforce in Alberta has been sponsored at some point,” Gould adds.

Recently, the CRFA has been successful in lobbying the Alberta government to allow for restaurant owners to nominate foreign workers permanently. In September, for a limited time, the government announced employers could apply to permanently fill up to 20 per cent of the workforce with people hired through the pilot Alberta Immigrant Nominee Program.

Across the country, foodservice operators in Newfoundland are dealing with similar problems. Luc Erjavec, VP, Atlantic Canada for the CRFA, says kitchen workers are leaving in droves for higher wages. “Particularly in Newfoundland, with the boom in the economy, there’s a shortage of cooks, and it’s [creating] competition between a lot of new establishments in Newfoundland, and there are some pretty big camps up in Labrador that are paying top dollar, and people tend to go there,” he says.

It’s an issue that’s also affecting Moncton, N.B.-based Imvescor Restaurant Group, which owns franchised and corporate full-service restaurants Pizza Delight in Atlantic Canada as well as Mikes, Scores and Baton Rouge in Quebec and Ontario. “In particular markets, more so Labrador, it’s been extremely challenging. It’s not a matter of retaining people there. It’s been a matter of getting applicants in, because there’s just no one to hire,” says Amber Coggan, chief compliance officer, All Brands and brand leader, Pizza Delight. After being forced to reduce hours of operation in Labrador, the company turned to the temporary foreign worker program, which she says has created a chain of referrals from its temporary labourers and a growing community of internationally born workers. “They’ve had really good success with the workers they’ve brought in,” she says. “We end up getting people [referred] that they know or are related to them to come over in the future.”

However, it’s an onerous task to bring on a new employee through the program. To apply for a Labour Market Opinion (LMO), the operator must demonstrate they’ve exhausted all possible avenues to employ Canadian workers, such as posting help ads at Aboriginal employment centres or seniors’ centres. And, there’s a $275 application fee per position, plus recruitment costs, finding suitable and affordable accommodation for the successful applicants as well as return transportation at the end of the employment contract.

Ticking time bomb
Another one of the biggest labour hurdles to overcome is what Lecours Wolfson’s recruitment consultant Robbie Bishop calls “a demographic time bomb.” He says: “Our population isn’t growing fast enough to accommodate our human resources requirements. In the near future we won’t have enough workers to fill each slot. And, to complicate this even further, many of our well-trained, experienced people are moving to other segments, such as the retirement industry, or they’re leaving our industry for higher wages and better hours.”
QSR operators are feeling the pain from the decline in young people looking for their first jobs. “The Canadian born-and-raised, they don’t much love the QSR industry, and they’re not making hundreds of dollars a week or perhaps more in tips,” Gould says, alluding to the extra money made in full-service serving positions. “As an industry we could do a better job of marketing the many opportunities in the hospitality industry.”

It doesn’t help that supervisory staff and assistant managers are also becoming more difficult to staff, because they are a transient pool of workers. “[They’ll] move to other QSR positions or other low-skilled retail, manufacturing and administrative positions on a regular basis,” says Michael Perrin, human resources manager, New York Fries and South Street Burger Co. He explains: they’re motivated by hourly rate, hours of operations, working conditions, employment location and potential or perceived advancement opportunities.
At Vancouver’s Glowbal Restaurant Group, which operates eight concepts, including Glowbal Grill Steaks & Satay and Black + Blue, Emad Yacoub, president and CEO, rethought his recruitment and employee development plans after applying for LMOs and placing ads in the U.S. “I had to approach it differently than everybody,” he said. “I worked on creating a management training school program in our company. For example, trying to get somebody at a level that’s going to fit my restaurants is very hard — but take a hostess and mould her for six months, [have her] shadow a general manager, and I am going to have a great junior manager,” he says, adding that his management training program sees up to two graduates every six months.

He took it a step further by partnering with local culinary schools and making donations to their program in the form of cooking appliances or uniforms and then training the students in his kitchens. “By doing that we get flocks of students from the school, and it’s easier for us to train them and get them to the level we need,” he says.

Glowbal also offers a six-month cooking school, which culminates in a cook-off where the winner receives a three-month mentorship with Yacoub. But, the development doesn’t end in the kitchen; Yacoub picks up the tab for servers interested in getting their sommelier certificate with one caveat — they have to commit to a year of employment with the restaurant group.

Outside the box
The government is placing more under-represented groups in the workforce by channelling funds into human resource programs. For example, in November, the CRFA and the Canadian Federation of Independent Business partnered with March of Dimes Canada’s Accessible Biz Connections program, which helps integrate people with disabilities into the workplace. The program, which launched in Atlantic Canada, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, helps operators find workers based on skills and experience, and provides a wage subsidy for up to a year. “We’re also working on a pilot project in Alberta to try and do more matchmaking for under-represented groups to the industry,” adds the CRFA’s von Schellwitz.

In the meantime, culinary school administrations such as George Brown College in Toronto are trying to encourage their students to expand their career options. “Grads need to figure out what part of the industry they really want to join; there are now so many different opportunities,” says Lorraine Trotter, dean of the Centre for Hospitality and Culinary Arts. “There is an opportunity to be a chef in a retirement living facility, in food product development; there are opportunities in emerging industries, and those industries and segments of the industry offer different lifestyles and different values.”

Moving forward, operators must hire creatively, advises the CRFA’s Erjavec. “Here in Nova Scotia, we’re working closely with the community services to try to get people on social assistance … into the workforce; other employers are working with First Nations communities. They’re working with immigrant associations to look for workers. I spoke to a guy from Cape Breton — they’ve turned to international students at the university to fill labour shortages. Necessity is the mother of invention. There’s no one simple magic bullet to labour shortage, and operators are exploring them all.”

Illustrations by Jem Sullivan

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