Britain’s rising chef shortage could cause a recruitment nightmare for education caterers who are already “underpaid, undervalued, undertrained and overburdened”, says a leading union official.

The stark warning comes from Ruth Levin, national officer for education and children’s services at Unison, who believes education catering will be one of the hardest hit sectors if drastic measures are not taken now.

According to a British Hospitality Association report, the hospitality industry is staring into an employment abyss, and that post-Brexit, without EU nationals to recruit, the industry could have a deficit of more than one million workers over the next decade.

Ruth comments: “In a nationwide shortage of chefs, with no end in sight, more needs to be done to attract and retain quality kitchen staff in the education catering sector – all of whom do a very important job. That means decent pay, basic and ongoing training, and working conditions. I know of one of our members who cooks for almost 1,000 pupils a day, alone with no help, for 10,000 a year. It really is disgusting.”

Adds Ruth: “As the number of pupils going on to secondary school continues to grow, there are certain areas of real concern about hours of work and excessive workload. In lots of cases people are telling us that staff that leave aren’t being replaced, meaning the remaining workforce has to work more and more hours. That is a lot of unpaid overtime.

“Low wages is another area of concern. What we’ve seen recently is an increasing number of schools contracting out their catering service, whilst there might be some initial protection at the point of transfer, new staff might be brought in on lower rates of pay.”

A study published by Unison earlier this year found that 33% of school kitchen staff had received no basic training.

Continues Ruth: “And we are talking about basic training, food allergies, first aid, food hygiene, health and safety and nutrition. The people we spoke to want to make sure they have up-to-date skills so they can deliver a top quality service to our children and young adults.”

Unison’s 2018 survey of more than 1,200 school catering employees found:

  • 41% are worried about their pay
  • 46% said it’s impossible to do their jobs within their allocated hours
  • 1 in 5 earn the minimum wage
  • 9% regularly work five or more hours unpaid
  • 1/3 of kitchen staff regularly do between two and five hours of unpaid overtime every week to keep their school’s kitchens operational

Heading for hot water?

Almost all catering recruitment agencies polled in a study (91%) say 2018 will see an increase in demand for chefs. The survey of 39 agencies, conducted by the Recruitment and Employment Confederation (REC), concluded that an investment in skills is the solution to Britain’s chef shortage.

REC chief executive Kevin Green says: “The government needs to come up with a realistic strategy to invest in skills. At the same time, we need to ensure that EU workers continue to feel welcome in the UK. This is only possible if government sends a clear signal and guarantees that those already in the country can stay while also coming up with a clear post-Brexit immigration strategy.”