When Steve Richards, chief executive of Casual Dining Group which includes Bella Italia, Café Rouge and Las Iguanas, told a London conference how much his highest paid waitress earns, there must have been a gasp in the room.
Far from being the meagre offering some might associate with the hospitality sector, his best earner was in a league typically reserved for comfortable white-collar professionals.
“My highest paid waitress is on £50,000 a year with tips,” he revealed, adding that the average earnings in his group is a relatively healthy £26,000.
“The casual dining market and restaurants, particularly high-end restaurants, are very good payers. That message is clearly lost in the fog,” he concluded.
It’s a fog that engulfs much of the food and drink sector and one which the industry in Scotland is desperate to clear.
Confronted with a skills shortage at the same time as demand for the nation’s high-quality produce is rising, and with increasing numbers drawn to sample Scotland’s hospitality, highlighting the sector’s rewards and diverse career opportunities has become a priority.
The urgency is not lost on Paul Brennan, director of multiple award-winning Edinburgh brasserie Dine. “I’ve been in the hospitality industry for nearly three decades and have witnessed first-hand the increasing skills gap across the sector, with a marked increase within the past year,” he says.
“In Edinburgh the skills shortage is particularly evident, the impact on restaurants is immense.
“The main challenge for many is recruiting and retaining talented, inspired staff with hands-on experience who want a career and view the industry as a profession, as opposed to some short-term work.”
He is playing his part: salaries at Dine outstrip those of many office jobs and are boosted by regular bonuses, enhanced holidays and straight shifts for a better work-life balance.
Brennan also offers continuous training and mentoring, and invests in the next generation by taking on rookies and offering intensive training to get them up to speed.
But with a national strategy to double the value of Scotland’s food and drink sector to £30 billion by 2030, what is everyone else doing?
And how, amid Brexit uncertainty and with a fall in migrant workers already being felt in Scotland’s fruit farms, hotels and restaurants, can the sector hope to achieve it?
A Skills Investment Plan developed by the industry in partnership with Skills Development Scotland identified four key themes: raising the profile and image of the sector; driving leadership and management excellence; skills for business improvement; and skills for business growth.
According to Gerry McBride, Skills Development Scotland’s skills planning and sector development manager for food and drink, it is already behind a range of initiatives to make the sector more attractive to young people, to those looking to return to work or change career. He says: “Online, My World of Work gives young people facts and figures about the sector, how it’s performing and suggestions about the different jobs, from farming and production through to manufacturing.
“This year we are also offering food and drink technology foundation apprenticeships for young people in senior phase at school.”
The two-year foundation apprenticeships, which are still in pilot form, will see fifth-year pupils spend half a day a week at college, before an industry placement in their final school year.
“We’ve also created education and business partnerships, so schools can visit businesses, and open days to find out how products are made and get to market,” adds McBride.
“For some time, industry has said there’s a shortage of food scientists, so we are engaging with the sector to discuss demand for a new graduate apprenticeship in food, science and technology.”
That would enable workers already in the food sector to “upskill” and gain additional qualifications while in the workplace – benefiting both worker and employer.
But the scale and diversity of the sector – from farms to restaurants, laboratory-based innovation and quality control to marketing – means nailing the skills and talent gap won’t be easy – particularly as the sector is still often regarded as tying staff to unsociable hours and low pay.
“I think the sector provides jobs for everyone,” adds McBride. “There’s a real diversity. Entry level, low skill and lower paid jobs offer the opportunity to develop. There are many examples of people building a very successful, prolonged career having started entry level jobs.”
While schools, colleges and universities have a role to play, industry is also rising to the challenge.
One exciting industry-led programme in the north-east sees farmers, who might not typically hire an apprentice, joining forces.
“The shared apprenticeship model means the apprentice gets a different experience at each farm and helps address farmers’ concerns over labour,” adds McBride.
Traditional apprenticeships are just as vital as innovative ideas. “In the Scotch whisky industry, coopers who prepare the barrels follow a four-year apprenticeship, with a young person put with an experienced worker. They form a bond and learn on the job from them.
“It is critical to the whisky industry that those apprenticeships continue.”
The sector directly employs 7,000 people and Karen Betts, chief executive of the Scotch Whisky Association, is conscious of the need to nurture its talent pipeline. “The Scotch whisky industry values highly skilled individuals and, in return, employees across the industry are rewarded with well paid jobs and opportunities to continue to develop their skills, and many remain in the industry for the whole of their careers,” she says.
“The industry is looking closely at its skills pipeline in Scotland.
“It has a range of conversations with the Scottish Government about the sorts of skills we will need in the future and how we can make sure the young people coming through the education system are learning these skills to ensure they can take up jobs in the industry if they want to.”
But there’s no escaping the challenges, from reduced access to employees from the EU, an ageing workforce and customer pressure for increased productivity all playing a part.
Alan Clarke, chairman of the Scotland Food & Drink Partnership’s people and skills board and chief executive of Quality Meat Scotland, says: “The current marketplace is extremely competitive, with retailers, restaurants and other food service providers looking for differentiation and ways of standing out and adding value to the supply chain.
“This is often achieved by product innovation, improved processes to ensure product consistency and measures to drive costs out of the production process.
“Our workforce needs to have the knowledge, skills and experience to tackle these key issues.”
Education and employers need to work together, he says.
“Scotland’s work-based training providers, colleges and universities provide a wide range of programmes and qualifications for the sector.
“However, both the primary and production sectors have a responsibility to manage the development of their workforce and there is a strong infrastructure of support available for those who decide to use it.
“The benefits are there to see for the many companies already utilising development programmes.
“I urge others to follow suit and engage with the programmes available to create an innovative, skills-led workforce for Scotland’s food and drinks industry.”
Professor John Lennon, the director of the Moffat Centre for Travel and Tourism Business Development based at Glasgow Caledonian University (GCU), says better pay and conditions are critical if the sector is to become more attractive, but need to be combined with industry training and education awards.
“The hospitality and tourism industry must provide transparent career pathways, quality training, outstanding progression possibilities and quality conditions and rewards.
“In GCU we are offering graduate apprenticeships in Scotland and degree apprenticeships in England (via GCU London).
“Both are currently in generic management areas but as an institution we are keen to embrace more subject areas and extend our proven track record in what is a transformational approach to education and training.”
Meanwhile, back at Dine, Brennan says everyone has a role to play. “The industry is under such pressure, it’s time the Government offered help to drive this industry and change perceptions.
“If we can instil passion in this generation from a young age, they will be proud of their career and motivated to help evolve and grow Scotland’s food and drink sector.”
If anyone knows the opportunities a career in the food and drinks sector can offer, it’s Mark Barker.
As a highly experienced chef, he’s worked around the world in some famous establishments, including the Dorchester Hotel in London, the Old Course Hotel Golf Resort & Spa St Andrews and the Scottish Parliament.
Now he’s passing on his skills as a lecturer in professional cookery at Scotland’s Rural College’s Elmwood campus in Fife.
“The industry has completely changed for the better from when I joined in the 1970s,” he says.
“There are lots of opportunities – it’s not just about working in a hotel or a restaurant.
“People do have to be aware that there’s no quick fix, though. You still have to work hard.
“But the rewards are out there. I’ve travelled the world and had a wonderful career.
“I remember my dad saying, ‘Don’t work in a kitchen, it’s anti-social and hard work’. But I’ve had wonderful experiences as a result of work. We need to tell people how good it can be.”
Richard Mayne is cluster general manager for Radisson Blu Edinburgh and Radisson Collection Hotel, Royal Mile Edinburgh, and also chairs a subgroup in Skills Development Scotland focused on attracting quality chefs and cooks to the hospitality industry.
He says a strong emphasis on training and engagement with apprenticeship and scholarship schemes helps to inspire staff and encourage them to stay in the industry.
“Staff are empowered and this gives them a passion for their roles.
“They know that with commitment they can progress in the business and in the wider hotel sector.
“For example, our cluster revenue development manager, Rachel Camorani, started her career as a part-time waitress and is now in a senior management position with the hotel.”
He adds: “We must do more to ensure young people see Scotland’s hotel and hospitality sector as a career path of choice.”
This article featured in The Scotsman’s Food & Drink special. A digital version can be viewed here.