A lack of job security is driving chefs and other kitchen staff to leave the trade, creating systematic skills shortages across the Scottish hospitality sector.

The situation has been further exacerbated by Brexit, industry leaders say, with many of the considerable number of EU workers who used to fill a large proportion of these roles having opted to return to mainland Europe. With venues geared up for the further easing of lockdown restrictions that takes place across much of Scotland today, shortages also extend to housekeeping, waiting staff and other front-of-house jobs.

“People don’t have confidence in catering in terms of the fact that it is the first to shut and the last to open [during lockdown],” says Trevor Garden, chef director at Buzzworks Holdings. “I personally know several chefs who are now driving trucks for Amazon, or things like that.”

A survey of more than 100 hotels published last week by the Scottish Tourism Alliance (STA) found that 89 per cent currently have between one and 10 unfilled vacancies, while a further 8% have between 11 and 20 jobs advertised. One reported having more than 51 vacancies, while separate reports have suggested that some larger venues have hundreds of unfilled posts.

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Marc Crothall, chief executive of the STA, said the situation is particularly acute in remote and rural locations. Many employers have been “surprised” by the number of those who have not come back from furlough when invited to do so.

Noting the continuing uncertainty around lockdown restrictions – which saw Glasgow held back into Level Three in a last-minute announcement on Friday – Mr Crothall said many furloughed employees have taken up other work to make ends meet during the past year.

“There will be some who say ‘I am safer to stay where I am right now’, rather than taking the risk,” he said. “Also, we have lost a European workforce that is very valuable to us.

“Some businesses have got lots of positions for housekeepers that are unfilled, but the big concern is the kitchen. Chef availability is in short supply.”

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Mr Garden joined Buzzworks at the beginning of 2020 with a remit to develop the skills of the existing team while also attracting new talent. The company has a portfolio of 12 venues across Ayrshire, Renfrewshire and South Queensferry, among them being The Coach House in Bridge of Weir, The Duke in Kilmarnock, Lido venues in Prestwick and Troon, and its Scotts venues in Troon, Largs and South Queensferry.

He said Buzzworks has maintained employee numbers at 500 throughout lockdown, but with natural churn and the opening of a new venue in Linlithgow this summer, recruitment remains a priority. The company currently has openings for head chefs, sous chefs, chef de partie and commis chefs in various locations.

“We are finding it difficult to attract candidates, and we are one of the top employers – ranked in the Sunday Times Best Companies to work for for the fifth year in a row – but we are finding it difficult along with everyone else,” he said.

The company is currently putting together a new “centre of excellence” at its head office in Kilmarnock that is due to be completed within the next couple of months. Buzzworks also offers four-day weeks, paid overtime, and access to wellbeing services.

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Such benefits are not typically associated with the industry, though amid the pressure on recruitment, they could become more widespread. Mr Crothall at the STA further noted that wages for chefs in some areas are at “very fair” levels.

With venues now open once again, Mr Garden said Buzzworks will be looking to consolidate its position as a leader in the industry, with its new centre of excellence to provide “the benchmark for hospitality training across Scotland”.

“For Scottish hospitality businesses to flourish once we come out of the other side of the pandemic, we must do all that we can to not only raise the profile of the industry as a viable career option, but to make sure that we hold on to the current crop of chefs and front-of-house staff working within the sector through job progression and supporting health and wellbeing,” he said.