3 Questions: Training the workforce of tomorrow

Three Questions for Babette Audant, assistant professor of culinary arts at Kingsborough Community College, and director of its Center for Economic and Workforce Development. Kingsborough, in Sheepshead Bay, offers the only public culinary arts degree in New York City.

Q: What’s the biggest workforce challenge facing the food industry in New York City?

A: A lack of qualified labor and stubbornly low pay rates. That means one of the biggest challenges facing the industry is a shortage of qualified cooks. The pay scale in private restaurants hasn’t changed in 15 years or more: they make about $120 a shift, and those are 10-hour days. In fast casual chain places with a corporate structure, the hourly wages start at $10-$12. We all say shift pay doesn’t happen – it’s illegal – but of course it does. And part of that is because of the high cost of doing business in New York City, from construction to rent. It will be interesting to see what happens when the minimum wage goes up to $15 an hour.

We talk to our students a lot about the relatively low wages in the industry – it ends up being part of the reason why people are driven out of the business, or leave for other cities where the pay scale may be the same but the cost of living is significantly lower.

Q: How many culinary professionals do you train every year?

A: Our two-year associates degree program serves about 175 students every year, with 40 to 50 new students each semester. And we do short-term training to serve another 100 – 150 students through programs including the New York City health department’s food handler certificate, and some teaching of basic skills to prepare students for entry level jobs.

Half our grads have their eye on a career in restaurant kitchens, about 25 percent are interEsted in being caterers and another 25 percent ultimately decide that working in food service is not what they should be doing. About half of our graduates go on to a four-year degree, mostly to study hospitality management or business at CityTech. And then I had a student who went on to study organic farming and is now doing a public health degree at Hunter.

Q: What are you doing to help train more food workers?

A: We’re building a new baking and pastry program at Kingsborough, and for that we’ve done a very intentional outreach to industry – we did a listening tour of 12 producers: pastry chefs and bakeries across Brooklyn and Manhattan and we’ve created an industry council that we’ll be convening next week. We’ve been talking to people about industry trends, and listening to them talk about their employment needs. We had a chance to collect a lot of input about what various employers thought needed to be emphasized. We want industry to get involved with us. Ask us to send students and accept our invites to provide you with interns. Let us know when you look for line cooks and prep cooks. And take a chance on our graduates: they won’t be as polished as the graduates of the private institutions, but those who have the energy and the drive it takes for a restaurant kitchen are amazing. It’s well worth the gamble.

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