Matt Chappell opened his restaurant, Gather, in a former Masonic hall on Main Street in Yarmouth about six years ago. He wanted to give the community an inviting place for a family brunch or an intimate evening out and serve dishes made with fresh, locally sourced ingredients.

The restaurant is successful, except for one thing – Chappell never has enough cooks in the kitchen. It’s a common woe among Maine restaurant owners, as the state’s blossoming food and beverage scene faces persistent labor shortages.

“We keep having the same conversation; it grows tiring after a while just to be struggling to find help in the kitchen,” Chappell said.

Now Chappell is willing to try something different. His is one of two businesses registered to host apprentices from a new program sponsored by HospitalityMaine, a trade group representing the state’s hotels and restaurants. The idea is to prepare a new generation of skilled workers for careers in the growing industry.

“I’m doing it out of need, but I am also doing it because we are all struggling,” Chappell said. “I’m tired of complaining about it; I’m ready to be part of the solution.”

Worker scarcity is the top issue for many employers in Maine. The need is especially acute in the state’s hospitality sector, as Maine’s reputation as a hot food, beverage and lodging destination grows.

The industry has added about 500 workers a year on average since 2001. Last year, more than 58,000 were employed in accommodation and food service, about one in every 10 working Mainers, according to Maine Department of Labor estimates.

Despite that growth, businesses are struggling to find enough workers locally to meet demand. Two years ago, the Maine Department of Labor estimated there were about 3,700 vacant jobs in accommodation and food service. Of those, 81 percent were “difficult to fill.”

It is long past time the industry confronted the problem, said Steve Hewins, president and CEO of HospitalityMaine. Hotels and restaurants need workers right now, but have to build a permanent skilled workforce in the field, Hewins said.

He hopes the apprenticeship program, developed with Southern Maine Community College, will correct the perception that restaurants and inns offer only dead-end, minimum-wage jobs. If workers keep at it, they can rise to careers as head chefs, hotel managers or even start their own businesses, Hewins said.

“Hospitality has not been considered to be an appropriate pathway for professional careers and we need to change that narrative,” he said.

WORK AND PAY

Apprentices would be required to work 2,000 hours in the industry and earn between 24 and 28 college credits toward an associate or bachelor’s degree. The program is designed so students can take online and classroom courses in late fall and winter and work full time in the summer, the busiest season for restaurants and hotels in southern Maine. While employed, workers concentrate on learning skills needed for careers in the industry.

Apprentices who complete the program will be nationally certified by the U.S. Department of Labor.

“The industry needs the students now. They don’t have time to wait two years for these students to finish a degree or take that much time out of their week to work towards a full degree right now,” said Paul Charpentier, interim dean of academics at Southern Maine Community College.

Guaranteed step raises are built into the program. Kitchen workers can start at $10 an hour and move to $13 an hour by the end of the apprenticeship, according to HospitalityMaine’s apprenticeship certification. The top wage is higher than the statewide average, but about 25 cents below what the average restaurant cook makes in the Portland area, according to Department of Labor statistics.

Because of the disparity of wages across the state, employers have leeway to pay apprentices more than the minimum. Chappell, from Gather, said it would be hard to find cooks willing to work for that little. He plans to pay apprentices somewhere in the range of $14 to $16 an hour. Companies can get reimbursement from the Maine Department of Labor for up to $1,200 a year per apprentice.

The promise of regular raises should entice apprentices to stay in their positions, instead of moving to a different restaurant for a small hourly increase, Charpentier said. That dynamic leads to tremendous turnover in the industry and prevents some people from staying with one employer and rising up the career ladder.

“There are so many jobs open, you really do have to stick around a while, you need that knowledge base to work off before you get the career opportunity,” Charpentier said. “The industry has to produce more training. This program is a step towards that.”

Hewins, from HospitalityMaine, plans to announce the program Monday during an annual industry summit in Bangor. So far, Gather and Maine Course Hospitality, a hotel management company, have signed on for the apprenticeship program, but Hewins expects dozens of businesses to take part.

The program should be provided at no cost to apprentices, but the details of that funding haven’t been finalized, he said. Recruiting apprentices may be a challenge considering Maine’s other industries are trying to hire workers amid a statewide unemployment rate of 3.3 percent. Hewins plans a robust outreach effort to a recruitment pool that includes high school students, recently released inmates and immigrants, among others.

The apprenticeship will start at SMCC but quickly spread to the entire community college system, he said.

“The need is critical across the state. We have to roll this out as quickly as we can to other campuses.”

 

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