Hospitality sector in ‘dire’ skills shortage

With the annual summer and March festival-frenzy just around the corner, South Australia’s restaurant and catering industry is in desperate need of more skilled workers.

Having recently reported more businesses to be closing than opening, peak industry body Restaurant and Catering SA are crying out for a number of changes to help the skill-shortage ravaged industry, which employs over 16,000 people across the state.

Among the industry’s grievances are those directed at the state’s migration program, with policy changes having negatively impacted the ethnic diversity of South Australia’s restaurants and eateries.

Renowned for its vibrant food culture, South Australia has a particularly broad palate when it comes to international cuisine. It is also a taste we have become accustomed to being catered for locally over the past few decades, courtesy of the large number of specialty restaurants and eateries that have cropped up right across the state.

But it seems the industry is struggling to service our lavish taste for diversity, after changes to Australia’s migration policy have further restricted restaurant owners and manager’s ability to recruit internationally experienced cooks and chefs.

Experience, not numbers, in demand by employers

One of the major reasons for the industry’s reliance on the migration program is due to the recent popularity of South Australia’s various Registered Training Organisation (RTO) short courses over the past several years, a product of the State Government’s ‘Skills for All’ program.

However whilst proving incredibly popular, the program has also inevitably reduced the experience level of graduates that are accredited as a fully qualified industry tradesperson upon graduation, according to Restaurants and Catering SA.

Chief Executive Sally Neville says it’s predictable that local kids prefer the 6-12 month courses to the traditional four-year apprenticeship, but it’s a reality that is causing real problems for employers.

‘Unfortunately the graduates of these RTO short courses often aren’t as prepared to work in a commercial kitchen as what they would have been through a traditional four-year apprenticeship,’ said Ms Neville.

‘The courses themselves are fine, and they provide quite a good solid base of knowledge to build on.

‘But in just six months, and without any experience working in a commercial kitchen, their rate of productivity just isn’t high enough for employers to afford to be able to pay them the wage their training says they are entitled to.’

The result is an increased demand for more experienced cooks and chefs, resources which are proving harder to come by for employers through the Australian migration program.

Changes to RSMS program severely restricting employers

Recent changes to eligibility criterion for the Regional Sponsored Migration Scheme (RSMS) to include two-years of compulsory work experience for applicants have further hurt hospitality employers struggling to find skilled workers.

The changes have acted as a significant roadblock by rendering international graduates unable to directly apply for permanent residency upon the completion of their studies – a serious setback for both those who wish to remain in Australia to live and work, and the employers that want to to recruit them.

But the added requirement is far more than just an extra step for students hoping to remain in Australia to work.

‘The absence of post-study work rights for international graduates in the Vocational Education Training sector means that the required amount of work experience is virtually impossible for international graduates to attain,’ said Mr Glazbrook.

‘It results in them being forced to return home, taking with them the skills they’ve just gained here in Australia, and that our restaurants are crying out for.

‘It’s a lose-lose situation for both the worker, who has by then become established in Australia and adjusted to our way of life, as well as for the employer, who is forced to search for a new employee.’

457 unsuitable for non-executive levels of employment

In place of the traditional RSMS permanent residency visa, many businesses have been forced to turn to a temporary 457 visa in order to fill positions.

However, the option is far from ideal, as the visa-type carries an array of attached sponsorship obligations that the employer must uphold, including a minimum salary level of $53,900 to be paid to the employee, along with a hefty ongoing contribution to an industry-training fund.

‘The 457 visa is really meant for large corporate businesses that are seeking executive-level or highly skilled employees that aren’t available locally,’ said Ms Neville.

‘You can’t expect a small independent business such as a restaurant to pay over $53,000 for a position such as an apprentice cook or a kitchen-hand just because local kids aren’t interested in it.’

It’s a point Managing Director of Migration Solutions Mark Glazbrook concurs with, who says that the current ‘one size fits all’ nature of the program is causing issues for local employers.

‘The difficulty that we see with the 457 program in South Australia comes as a result of the minimum salary level being set at $53,900.00, when it is widely recognised that wages and salaries in South Australia are somewhat lower than the national average and those based in Melbourne or Sydney,’ said Mr Glazbrook.

‘It is very difficult for businesses to be able to employ cooks through the 457 program due to the minimum salary levels. As a direct result of the limitations of the RSMS program and the challenges of 457 program, it is very difficult for employers in South Australia to address skills shortages through the Australian migration program.’


As a result of the combination of the damaging factors, Migration Solutions and the RCSA, recommends the following four key changes to the state migration program in order to alleviate the strain caused by skills shortages throughout the industry.

  • Introduce post-study work rights for VET students to enable them to stay and work in Australia after the completion of their training.
  • Remove the requirement for labour market testing which adds a regulatory and administrative burden to an industry that has short lead times for critical jobs.
  • Reinstatement of the regional 457 visa to allow small businesses to hire international workers for positions in shortage with a reduced minimum salary level.
  • Relaxation in stringency of sponsorship obligations to make employer-sponsored visas less cost-prohibitive for small businesses.

For more information on the hospitality sector skills shortage via an in-depth interview with Chief Executive of Restaurant & Catering SA, Sally Neville, click here.

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