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Star quality in the Hospitality Sector despite skills shortages

Ciaran O’Neill, President of Northern Ireland Hotels Federation and Operator of Bishop’s Gate Hotel in Derry-Londonderry

Michelin Stars, once achieved, are something every restaurant wants to hold on to. For many years Northern Ireland was in the Michelin wilderness until last year when Deane’s Belfast based, Eipic and Ox gained a star each. Both restaurants secured their stars for the coming year and at the Michelin event in London on Monday another Northern Ireland chef, Clare Smyth was honoured as Female Chef of the year, while the Sous Chef at Eipic was crowned National Chef of the year.

These positive developments are set against a background of an industry that is desperately in need of chefs. The pressure on all elements of the hospitality sector has ramped up over the last eighteen months. Yes, we’ve had a lot of new restaurants. There has also been a growth in the number of pubs that are now serving food and new hotels are opening. However, it’s clear there are simply not enough people entering the industry or choosing it as a career option. No-one underestimates how challenging it can be to work in a kitchen! Yet, it is can be very rewarding, providing a creative outlet and offering lots of people a stellar career!

Chefs are not the only people that we seem to be lacking: the industry is also in need of trained service staff for food and beverage outlets, housekeepers and receptionists for hotels. As Northern Ireland’s hotel sector experiences a major building boom, there is real concern at the current lack of skilled staff available and the additional pressure this significant growth spurt will bring.

Ciaran O’Neill, President of the Northern Ireland Hotels Federation who recently opened Bishop’s Gate Hotel in Derry-Londonderry discusses the challenges facing the sector locally:

“The current chef shortage is reaching a critical point. There are simply not enough skilled people to fill current demand coming through to industry. This is pushing many businesses to breaking point and preventing expansion opportunities.

“I trained as a chef for three years at the Northern Ireland Catering College whilst working every weekend and served a three-year apprenticeship in Switzerland and London before returning home and taking up a Sous Chef position for two years and then taking a role as Head Chef and eventually opening my own restaurant.

“As a result of the current crisis, people are moving up the ladder without maturing in the role and they are not getting the proper skills training to sustain a career. We also have an image issue and it is becoming increasingly difficult to attract recruits in the numbers required to fill vacancies within Hotels.”

Current government analysis suggests that an additional 20,000 people are required to enter the industry by 2020. This figure covers replacements and new recruits. The sector in Northern Ireland is growing at 15% a year, nearly double the rest of the UK.

Ciaran adds: “Michelin Star Chef Daniel Clifford of Midsummer House in Cambridge recently spoke out about the difficulty in securing chefs. If a Michelin star restaurant is struggling to fill vacancies, you can imagine how difficult it is for the provincial hotel.

“Funnily enough, Daniel Clifford’s head chef is from Templepatrick, a young man who is taking part in the Northern Ireland heats of this year’s Great British Menu. If Daniel can get chefs from Northern Ireland, perhaps we should see if we can attract chefs from Cambridge!”

Explaining the wider implications for the industry as a whole, Ciaran says:

“The Northern Ireland hotel sector is set to grow which is really positive. Each hotel room represents one job in the sector. There are currently 8,000 rooms and 8,000 jobs. If hotel rooms grow as predicted to 10,000 by 2020, we will have a significant skills need. Collectively, we need to work together to showcase the opportunities that exist and the positive benefits of a career within this expanding sector. The hospitality industry is large and diverse, offering people from all walks of life a career which is not only enjoyable but also rewarding. It is an industry offering a wide range of roles. People can enter at any level and there are endless opportunities to climb the ladder.”

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