Belfast Telegraph

Niall McKenna: 'We must work now to address skills shortage'


By Niall McKenna

With growing global awareness of Northern Ireland's incredible hospitality offering, visitor numbers are increasing and so too are the number of businesses catering for the influx of tourists. While this is all good news for our economy, there is a very real issue with how the hotels and restaurants planned for Belfast and beyond will be staffed.

As we launch the fourth year of our apprentice programme, which has trained more than 24 chefs, many of whom remain working within the James Street South group of restaurants, the focus is on training up the next generation of excellence - not just for our own business, but for the entire sector in the face of a very real skills shortage.

We work in partnership with Belfast Met, with our apprentices spending two days a week studying, as well as gaining invaluable experience in our kitchens. Up to 12 applicants will learn their craft from our award-winning chefs, and their training is crucial for the continued existence of our business. Endorsed by the Department for the Economy, the 10 month placement is open to 16 to 24-year-olds who will work across the group, which includes the flagship James Street South, the Bar & Grill, Hadskis, The Cookery School and Cast & Crew in the Titanic Quarter.

Coming from backgrounds as diverse as zoology and architecture, our apprentices learn about every aspect of the job, while securing the qualifications and skills that will last them a lifetime. They're treated with respect, paid a wage through college, and learn about food from some of the biggest names in the industry, via some of the 'field trips' we organise for them, the most recent being a visit by world renowned chef Nathan Outlaw.

Like many food destinations in Belfast, recruiting new kitchen staff is a challenge, and that - as many restaurateurs in the city will recognise - is an understatement.

We started this programme after the success of training Aaron McNeice as our first full-time apprentice in 2012 and by 2014 we recognised that a pipeline of talent was needed. In the four years since its inception, the apprentices who successfully applied to join our scheme have been trained, motivated and given a passion for the industry and the local produce that make up 90% of our menus from the very outset of their careers.

They are the lifeblood to the ongoing success of our business. This year we've added a Front of House training scheme to further enhance the service received by customers get when they dine at our restaurants. Working again with the Belfast Met, this investment has been undertaken to shore up the next wave of tourism excellence for James Street South and Northern Ireland, and I am encouraging other business owners to adopt the same practices.

At present, we're one of a handful of hospitality specific companies pushing a programme like this forward for the benefit of the business, but I do believe other employers should be partnering with the colleges creating smaller cells of excellence within restaurants in Belfast and beyond.

If I can't get more people into this industry, I will struggle to develop my business. I doubt I'll be the only one. We want to create a passion for hospitality here, and we need the right people to do it.

Belfast Telegraph