New Orleans restaurant boom creates lack of skilled staffers
Don Ames Reporting
Local restaurants are hard pressed to put food on the table, due to a lack of qualified workers.
And, with more and more restaurants opening in New Orleans, the labor pool is getting smaller and smaller.
"Actually this is a national trend," says Wendy Waren, with the Louisiana Restaurant Association. "As the economy strengthens and unemployment rates trend downward, restaurant operators are likely to see recruiting and retaining employees become difficult."
But, New Orleans is ahead of the curve in that area.
"The April 2014 New Orleans area unemployment rate was 4.7 percent compared to nationally at 6.3 percent," Waren says.
Meanwhile, the area is seeing more and more new restaurants entering the market.
"We have a lot of new restaurants that have opened and they're struggling to fill those positions, or restaurants may see employees move over to one of the new establishments."
The number of restaurants in the New Orleans area has climbed past 1,400, and many operators are reporting a scarcity of trained workers.
Waren says the LRA is doing what it can to help.
"Ten years ago the Louisiana Restaurant Association Education Foundation started the ProStart Program to attract young people to careers in our industry and to fill the demand for skilled restaurant staff."
"ProStart is a two-year culinary art and restaurant management curriculum in 42 high schools statewide, with 1,300 students enrolled in this previous school year. 18 of those high schools are in the greater New Orleans area, with over 550 students enrolled in that program," Waren says.
The burgeoning hotel market in the area is also having an impact on the talent pool. Most hospitality management training programs emphasize the hotel industry.
"The food service component in hotels is large," Waren says. "So, within those hotel management programs there is a great emphasis on food service and beverage service, because they're catering on these massive scales...they're doing room service, they have restaurants in the hotels, and such."
And, the local programs that help supply the restaurant talent pool are reaching their own limits, with training facilities and enrollment numbers far from what's needed to meet demand.
The College of Business at the University of New Orleans has found jobs for 100 percent of students graduating from its School of Hospitality, Restaurant and Tourism Administration. The number of job placements for undergraduates is approaching that level, as well. But enrollment has declined at UNO since 2009 and is far from the pre-Kartrina level.
Delgado Community College reports the Culinary Arts & Hospitality Management program is "maxed out" at 140 students, with nearly all of them placed in apprenticeships that will result in full-time jobs.
Again, Waren says the Restaurant Association is doing its best. "The LRA Education Foundation has a scholarship fund. And we've awarded over $200,00 to financially assist individuals wishing to pursue or continue their culinary or hospitality management education."
"We're working right now with the Department of Education on their new Jump Start Program, which is a dual enrollment between high school students and area colleges to align the curriculum to, basically, give a high school student certification and/or college credit towards a particular field...in our case, hospitality and culinary."
The local industry is eagerly looking forward to the opening of the New Orleans Culinary and Hospitality Institute. The institute plans to open its doors officially in 2016, but parts of the building's long-term operations should go live as early as the end of 2015.
"When the New Orleans Culinary and Hospitality Institute comes on-line, that will provide additional advanced education opportunities for individuals seeking to go into our industry or more education to help them further their career in our industry since Delgado and UNO's culinary hospitality programs are reporting max capacity," says Waren.
Many in the industry would like to see the business schools direct more of their internship candidates away from hotels and toward restaurants, where managers make significantly more than the average hotel manager, and can reach that level far more quickly than at a hotel.