ELLSWORTH — What is a restaurant owner to do when there aren’t enough cooks in the kitchen (and haven’t been for years)?
The Maine Department of Labor (DOL) and trade group HospitalityMaine think they have the answer, or at least part of it: apprenticeships.
“It’s sort of an old thing that’s resurging for the hospitality industry,” said Steve Hewins, CEO of HospitalityMaine.
“I’m hopeful that it’s going to be a real solution.”
The apprenticeship program is modeled after a similar offering from the National Restaurant Association, said Hewins, and offered in coordination with the state’s community college system.
“Community colleges are becoming more relevant because people are realizing they’re going to lead to jobs,” Hewins added.
Apprentices are required to be enrolled in coursework related to their job in hospitality, such as culinary arts or tourism management. Certain classes will count toward the apprenticeship certificate.
“Coursework is customized to work around the schedules of the hotel and restaurant industry,” said Hewins, with many classes offered online or on days restaurants may be closed.
“Our objective is to source entirely new students and get them in at the entry level. The critical need is new staff.”
The state has other apprenticeship programs “mostly in the trades,” said Hewins, but the idea of hospitality apprenticeships is relatively new.
Businesses that employ students who are participating in the program are eligible for up to $1,200 in reimbursement from the state for each apprentice they take on.
“The business is required to move you through a certain skill set,” said Hewins, as well as guarantee raises as students advance.
“You could start by washing dishes but then you learn to cook vegetables, run the Frialator, manage the budget,” said Hewins. After completing a certain amount of coursework and on-the-job training, students receive a certificate approved by the DOL.
“That gives it federal credibility,” Hewins said.
But the point isn’t to train chefs and hotel workers and send them elsewhere.
“This could help with the seasonal shortages that we have,” Hewins. “But our goal is to build careers, not just temporary seasonal workers. We get these people placed and they stay on a year-round-basis. The main thing for us is to build the next generation.”
The program will help recruit students for businesses hungry for workers. Hewins said he expects “at least three dozen” businesses to sign up.
“We’ll put them in the pool and hopefully have enough students for everybody come spring” when the program is slated to begin, Hewins said.
The hospitality apprenticeship idea was jointly conceived by HospitalityMaine and the DOL, which is funding the reimbursement for employers.
Businesses in all sectors have struggled to fill positions in a time of historically low unemployment and increasingly complicated requirements for temporary worker visas.
The shortage has been particularly acute in Hancock County, where unemployment rates have been lower than the statewide average for several years. Many shops have had to cut back hours or take on fewer jobs. Service in many restaurants has been slower, with fewer chefs to cook and waiters to serve.
A shifting workforce is contributing to the hospitality worker shortage. According to a DOL report, jobs in the future are expected to require higher levels of education and be increasingly service-based rather than goods-producing. Hospitality is predicted to be one of just three sectors (including health care and professional/business services) to experience gains in the next five years.
Further exacerbating the issue, the state’s population is aging and, barring an influx of workers, the number of working-age Mainers is expected to decline by 2024. (Migration into the state peaked in the 1970s and has decreased in the ensuing decades.)
Recruiting workers from out of state isn’t the only option.
“While attracting more workers to Maine is important and definitely part of the answer, there are still thousands of Maine people who are not engaged in our workforce,” said DOL Commissioner John Butera in a statement announcing the apprenticeship program.
“It is incumbent upon us at the Department of Labor to engage them and remove as many barriers as possible to their success as part of Maine’s economy.”