A damning migration report has been criticised by operators and trade bodies who have said it is "hardly surprising" the industry struggles to fill roles with UK candidates when cheffing is branded "low skill".
The report recommended chefs be reduced from the shortage occupation list and said the failure of employers to improve the domestic pipeline and hostile working environments spoke against keeping chefs on the list.
It was written by the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC), which offers independent advice to the Home Office on immigration policy and produces reports on whether certain occupations should or shouldn't be given some special dispensations to make it easier for employers to access migrant labour to fill vacancies. Chefs have been on the shortage occupation list since its introduction in 2008.
Laura Christie, co-founder of Oklava, said: "The reality is many hospitality venues – UK wide – could quite simply not fill all of their positions with staff from the UK. The skills don't exist and it is not viewed as an attractive career option, hardly surprising when it is branded ‘low skill'…
"How many top restaurants would simply not exist had the new system been in place 15 years ago? And how much poorer would food culture in the UK be for it?"
Robin Sheppard, president of Bespoke Hotels, echoed her sentiments. He asked: "To what end does the removal of chefs suggested in this report aid anybody, whether in the UK or overseas. Why do we need to restrict movement of cooking skills; it's patently absurd… I don't understand the ultimate aim of the process and reject the recommendations with abject pity for the narrow mindedness of the ambition."
A spokesperson for trade body UKHospitality said it was not a good idea to be removing occupations from the list while the labour market is so volatile.
"When the crisis has passed, it is vital that the list is reviewed regularly with occupations such as chef allowed to be included again if there is a need. Once were are through the crisis, there will be a return to pre-Covid demands and it is crucial that the list is responsive enough to reflect shortages."
Sandra Kelly, UK director of People 1st International, said removing chefs from the list will further reduce the pipeline of skilled chefs coming into the sector. She said that while the MAC's findings suggest that the sector isn't doing enough to improve the training of chefs, she pointed out that the Hospitality Skills & Quality Board – a 15-strong group of leading employers led by Kathryn Porter – has been dedicated to ensuring the vocational programmes on offer are reflective of the skills needs of employers.
The apprenticeship standards for chefs, developed and quality assured by the board, have attracted more than 12,000 learners in the past four years and with the new T-Level for chefs set to be bought in for 2023, there will also be an alternative vocational route-way on offer through colleges.
However, she also highlighted the critical nature of the pipeline coming through from schools, with fewer than 50,000 students in the UK now taking GCSEs in food preparation and nutrition, 50% less than just two years ago.
She said: "This is set to have a profound impact on the talent pipeline, apprenticeships and full-time college hospitality and catering courses.
"To alleviate the challenges posed by the chef shortage – and the removal of chefs from the shortage occupation list – we need to capitalise on the energy and passion of committed employers to unearth what is happening to their talent pool."
The Home Office said in July that chefs will be eligible for the skilled worker immigration route regardless of whether the role is included on the shortage occupation list or not under its new points-based immigration system.
The MAC report did not recommend adding catering and bar managers, hotel and accommodation managers and proprietors, or restaurant and catering establishment managers and proprietors to the list, as little to no evidence was received from stakeholders or its online questionnaire.
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