Matt Chappell opened his restaurant, Gather, in a former Masonic Hall on Main Street in Yarmouth about six years ago. He wanted to provide the community with an inviting place for a family brunch or an intimate evening and serve dishes made with fresh, local ingredients.
The restaurant is successful, with one exception: Chappell never has enough cooks in the kitchen. It’s a common misfortune among restaurateurs in Maine, as the state’s thriving food and drink scene faces persistent labor shortages.
âWe continue to have the same conversation; it gets tiring after a while just having trouble finding help in the kitchen, âsaid Chappell.
Now Chappell is ready to try something different. It is one of two companies registered to welcome apprentices to a new program sponsored by HospitalityMaine, a trade group representing hotels and restaurants in the state. The idea is to prepare a new generation of skilled workers for careers in the growing industry.
âI do it out of need, but I also do it because we’re all in trouble,â Chappell said. âI’m sick of complaining about it; I am ready to be part of the solution.
The labor shortage is the number one issue for many Maine employers. The need is particularly acute in the state’s hospitality industry, as Maine’s reputation as a hot food, beverage, and lodging destination grows.
The industry has added about 500 workers per year on average since 2001. Last year more than 58,000 were employed in accommodation and food services, about one in ten workers, according to estimates from the Maine Department of Labor.
Despite this growth, companies are struggling to find enough workers locally to meet demand. Two years ago, the Maine Department of Labor estimated there were about 3,700 vacant accommodation and food services jobs. Of these, 81% were âdifficult to completeâ.
It is high time the industry faced the problem, said Steve Hewins, President and CEO of HospitalityMaine. Hotels and restaurants need workers right now, but need to build a permanent skilled workforce on the ground, Hewins said.
He hopes the apprenticeship program, developed with Southern Maine Community College, will correct the perception that restaurants and inns only offer dead-end, minimum-wage jobs. If workers continue, they can advance to careers as chefs, hotel managers or even start their own businesses, Hewins said.
âHospitality has not been seen as an appropriate path for professional careers and we need to change that narrative,â he said.
WORK AND PAY
Apprentices would be required to work 2,000 hours in industry and earn between 24 and 28 university credits towards an associate’s or bachelor’s degree. The program is designed so that students can take online and in-class courses in late fall and winter and work full time in the summer, the busiest season for restaurants and hotels in southern Maine. . When employed, workers focus on learning the skills necessary for a career in the industry.
Apprentices who complete the program will be nationally certified by the US Department of Labor.
âThe industry needs students now. They don’t have time to wait two years for these students to graduate or take that much of their week to complete a full degree right now, âsaid Paul Charpentier, Acting Dean of Academics at Southern Maine Community College.
Guaranteed step increases are built into the program. Kitchen workers can start at $ 10 an hour and move up to $ 13 an hour upon completion of apprenticeship, according to HospitalityMaine’s apprenticeship certification. The top salary is above the state average, but about 25 cents below what the average restaurant cook in the Portland area earns, according to Department of Labor statistics.
Due to wage disparity across the state, employers have leeway to pay apprentices more than the minimum. Chappell, of Gather, said it would be hard to find cooks willing to work for so little. He plans to pay apprentices between $ 14 and $ 16 an hour. Companies can obtain reimbursement from the Maine Department of Labor of up to $ 1,200 per year per apprentice.
The promise of regular increases should encourage apprentices to stay at their jobs, instead of moving to another restaurant for a small hourly increase, Charpentier said. This dynamic results in huge turnover in the industry and prevents some people from staying with one employer and moving up the career ladder.
âThere are so many jobs open, you really have to stay awhile, you need this knowledge base to work before you have a career opportunity,â Charpentier said. âThe industry needs to produce more training. This program is a step in that direction.
Hewins, of HospitalityMaine, plans to announce the program on Monday at an annual industry summit in Bangor. So far, Gather and Maine Course Hospitality, a hotel management company, have signed up for the apprenticeship program, but Hewins expects dozens of companies to participate.
The program is expected to be provided free of charge to apprentices, but details of this funding have not been finalized, he said. Recruiting apprentices can be a challenge as other industries in Maine are trying to hire workers amid a statewide unemployment rate of 3.3%. Hewins plans a strong outreach effort with a recruiting pool that includes high school students, recently released inmates and immigrants, among others.
The apprenticeship will start at SMCC but will quickly spread throughout the community college system, he said.
âThe need is critical statewide. We need to roll this out as quickly as possible to other campuses. “
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