Culinary school enrollment declines as restaurant staffing needs rise

CHARLOTTE — Dressed in a short-sleeved chef’s shirt and black and white checked chef’s trousers, Yadiska van Putten puts a black nitrile glove on each hand as she begins her morning shift as as a Preparator and Level 2 Cook in the Gallery Restaurant kitchen at the Ballantyne Hotel in Charlotte. The range hood vent and convection oven rumble behind her as she chops strawberries for lunchtime salads.

Van Putten was hired for the $14-an-hour job in April, a month before graduating from the Charlotte campus of Johnson & Wales University. She started in mid-May, one of about 30 cooks working in the kitchen at the upscale restaurant, which bills itself as serving “New American dishes in a fancy venue.”

Attracted by the idea of ​​“leading a team, being able to create an environment, a concept”, she wants to be an executive chef. Van Putten, a soft-spoken woman who grew up in St. Maarten, says her father, Humphrey, 58, has had various restaurant jobs and is also a talented home cook. “I was always in the kitchen with him,” she said. “Seeing him is what inspired me to be like him.”

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That particular ambition sets van Putten apart from many graduates of her four-year program, she said. When she started at Johnson & Wales in the fall of 2017, many of her classmates also wanted to work as executive chefs in restaurants, but by the time they graduated most of her peers, she said , had chosen different paths – studying hotel management, sustainable food systems or cooking. nutrition to prepare for jobs in places such as assisted living centers and hospitals, with meal delivery companies or in catering.

Van Putten’s enthusiasm for working behind the scenes in restaurants also sets her apart in the job market nationwide.

According to Bureau of Labor Statistics projections, the need for chefs and chefs far exceeds the number of students interested in pursuing these careers. Observers say the reasons include relatively low pay compared to education costs, and a pandemic that has decimated the restaurant industry and prompted a younger generation to reconsider erratic working hours in places that don’t often offer no paid sick leave or health insurance.

The bureau predicts that the need for chefs and chefs will increase by 25% from 2020 to 2030, much faster than the projected average growth rate of 8% for all occupations. These projections were developed in the fall of 2021 and therefore include the start of the pandemic in March 2020, said William Lawhorn, an economist with the bureau’s Office of Occupational Statistics and Employment Projections.

As Lawhorn explained, the dire need for chefs and master cooks is the result of the restaurant industry shutting down during the pandemic. “You’re starting from a very low base,” he said. “Much of the projected job growth in this occupation is due to the recovery from the covid-19 recession. We’re just trying to get back to where we were.

Meanwhile, interest in culinary careers appears to be declining.

The Culinary Institute of America, often cited as the nation’s most revered culinary school, now accepts 97% of all who apply, a rate much higher than the 36% it accepted for the 2001- 02. The number of applicants increased by less than 1% between the 2001-02 academic year and the 2020-21 academic year, according to data compiled by the National Center for Education Statistics. During the same period, school performance – the percentage of admitted students who eventually enroll – fell from 91% in the 2001-02 school year to 33%. The institute did not respond to requests for comment.

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Over the same 19-year period, Johnson & Wales’ flagship campus in Providence, RI, saw a 23% decline in applicants and a 21-14% decline in yield. The university’s Charlotte campus opened in the fall of 2004, following the consolidation of its Charleston and Norfolk locations. It closed its Denver and North Miami campuses in 2021.

Nationally, the number of post-secondary institutions offering culinary programs fell 20.5% between 2017 and 2020, from 264 to 210, according to the American Culinary Federation Education Foundation.

One factor limiting student interest in culinary school is that a four-year culinary degree is not cheap. A 2015 survey by Eater showed that tuition at culinary schools can be several times higher than rates charged at public four-year universities. Tuition (excluding room and board) for the Charlotte campus of Johnson & Wales, for example, increased in the 2021-2022 school year to $36,274, a 4.4% increase from to the previous school year. This compares to in-state tuition of $7,188 per academic year at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

These statistics don’t tell the whole story, said Althea Carter, a cooking teacher at Hoover, Alabama Public Schools. Not all executive chefs get undergraduate degrees from culinary schools, she said. Many want to know the business side of running a restaurant, given the high failure rate of restaurants.

“I was executive chef for a while,” she said. “But my bachelor’s degree was in restaurant management. … More and more people want to learn the trade, because here’s the problem: it’s a world of dog-eating dogs.

Of the 14 students who graduated from her high school’s culinary program this spring, Carter said, one went straight into the culinary workforce and eight are starting programs in hospitality and tourism, culinary arts or science. food.

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Erika Polmar, executive director of the Independent Restaurant Coalition, agrees with Carter that enrollment in culinary programs is not an accurate way to measure career interest among young adults. “Our industry is one that allows people to start in dishwashers, waiters, line cooks and move up without needing that kind of formal education,” she said. “Admissions data certainly tells part of the story, but you have to remember that going to an institution like the CIA or Johnson & Wales is incredibly expensive, right? … So why take on that burden? debt when you can go to the higher school of life and get a job in a kitchen and move up?

Saru Jayaraman, founder of One Fair Wage, a national restaurant worker advocacy group, blames low pay for a lack of candidates for chefs and head chefs. The restaurant industry was already facing a labor crisis before the pandemic due to low wages, she said. “Workers know it’s wages. Employers know it’s the wages,” she said, and only an increase in the federal minimum wage for front and back workers would reduce the shortage.

Van Putten’s education was funded by a grant from the government of resort-rich St. Maarten in hopes she would return to work on the Caribbean island. His supervisor at Gallery, executive chef Charles Gardiner, 33, graduated from a community college in Asheville, North Carolina. “I graduated debt-free,” he said, and earned his executive chef certification at age 23.

Jason Evans, dean of the College of Food Innovation and Technology at Johnson & Wales, was not surprised to learn that many of van Putten’s classmates are pursuing career paths other than executive chefs. Her university has reshaped its programs over the past decade to reflect the changing culinary-adjacent job market.

“One of the reasons they may move away from those traditional hospitality or executive chef jobs is less about salary and more about work-life balance,” he said. “The hotel and restaurant industries are built late at night and on weekends. I’m not a sociologist, but…this new generation of students might not appreciate that.

The solution, Evans said, is to “professionalize the industry.” Companies that hire graduates “are going to have to add a different incentive structure…which includes not only salaries, but also time off and benefits,” he said.

This is the kind of package offered by van Putten’s employer. Gardiner said many high-end independent restaurants in Charlotte pay $17 an hour — an extra $3 an hour — for jobs like his. But, he said, they tend to offer no benefits. The Ballantyne, which is operated by Denver-based Northwood Hospitality, provides all of its employees with health insurance, sick leave and short-term disability, he said. While younger employees may not be concerned about those perks, the package has allowed him to retain more experienced employees, he said.

Van Putten said it was not Ballantyne’s benefits that prompted her to accept the job offer. It was the work culture. She said she interviewed for a similar job at a Charlotte-area country club and the hiring manager didn’t even show her the kitchen. “When I came here, I got a tour of the whole place. I felt welcome here, knowing that I’m not just about work; I am a person who is valued,” she said.

While the growing shortage of executive chefs poses a challenge for restaurant owners and managers, Christophe Le Chatton, general manager of the Ballantyne, says it also provides opportunities for budding chefs. Positions that required a decade or more of dues now could be available in three to five years.

“Today it’s more about showing off your skills. You can go so fast so much faster,” Le Chatton said. “Now is the perfect time to enter the industry.”

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