Hospitality offers hope for disadvantaged youth

Employment in bars, restaurants and hotels could help young people with multiple challenges to break the cycle of despair. We just need to find the right recipe, says Dr Richard Robinson.

In my previous career, I spent several years as the executive chef at an upmarket private club. I once hired a young cook who was on the methadone program. Mike was struggling to overcome multiple disadvantages - addiction, dependency on welfare, ostracism and estrangement from his partner and their young daughter.

After I interviewed him, he wrote to me pleading for a chance to break free of his circumstances and, with heart more than head, I agreed. However due to poor productivity, behavioural issues and the resulting disharmony within the team, nine months later I let him go.

A number of years passed during which time I had changed career to become an academic, when one day I bumped into Mike on campus. He was studying engineering and just a few courses away from completing his degree.

Mike is not alone. Throughout Australia, there are many thousands of young people struggling with multiple challenges - deprived family background, low educational levels, mental health problems, perhaps exacerbated by substance abuse – and who need help to break free.

The youth unemployment rate is twice that of the general population and among young people like these, it is much higher. Being out of work damages their self-esteem, creates the risk of disaffection and leaves them trapped in the cycle of disadvantage.

Providing meaningful employment could help them escape the ills of dependency and social exclusion. Since one lost job costs $30,000 a year in benefits and lost revenues, it would also be a significant boost to the economy.

What better way to reach out to these young people and welcome them into the workforce than through the hospitality industry, which is built on the principles of inclusion?

After 18 years’ experience as a chef managing food service operations, I know how quickly and easily inexperienced recruits can be integrated into the industry. You don’t need a diploma to work in a kitchen. Of course it takes a lot of skill to become a top chef but there are a lot of straight forward tasks to start them off with – particularly nowadays when many operations are standardised and complete dishes can be assembled from pre-prepared products.

Newcomers soon become part of the team - there is a great sense of camaraderie in a kitchen and it can be a lot of fun. Time flies when you are serving hundreds of people and it leaves you with a warm feeling of satisfaction at the end of the day.

It was only after leaving the industry, however, that I started to recognise its potential to create jobs for the disadvantaged and become a force for positive social change.

Hospitality faces labour shortages yet it is one of the few sectors which can offer wide-ranging opportunities for people with low education and skills. And it is not just jobs in kitchens – there is demand for servers in restaurants and cafes, baristas, bar attendants, hotel receptionists and housekeepers, and roles in events and attractions.

There are also plenty of employers who are living the hospitality creed and willing to welcome them aboard. So it is surprising that schemes designed to support disadvantaged people to come into the hospitality industry have so far shown limited long-term benefit.

While there has been a wide range of state-assisted welfare schemes, even candidates who have successfully completed placements have largely failed to find or hold down jobs and often end up back at square one.

Why such schemes fail is unclear. It could be that many programs are based on subsidy models and once the subsidy comes to an end, so does the job. However experience from large, highly committed employers suggests the problem is wider and that we need better support structures in place.

It’s not enough to turn out candidates with a certificate in hand – we may have to provide case workers and practical help to build their self-esteem and acclimatise to a working environment that will be unfamiliar to many. From an economic standpoint, this could be well worthwhile as even moving someone from welfare to a minimum wage pays dividends in the long run.

My mission is to discover how best we can help these young people make the transition from supported employment to a successful hospitality career. Having been awarded a research fellowship from UQ Business School, over the next three years I will be collaborating with hospitality and welfare groups to identify the obstacles and strategies to overcome them.

I will also be gaining some practical insights from a real-life industry project. I have been working with the St Vincent de Paul Society to extend the successful Vinnies brand into food service. They recently opened their first café in Sumner Park, Brisbane in partnership with Multicap and hope it will be the first of many.

I often think back to my experience with Mike. While we helped him take a step in the right direction, in hindsight I feel that with better knowledge and more supportive organisational practices, we could have done more. I hope my project will enable us to find ways we can all work together to offer young disadvantaged people like Mike the prospect of a brighter future.

Dr Richard Robinson is a senior lecturer in hospitality management at UQ Business School.

Last updated:
25 March 2019