Quebec must rebuild restaurant and hospitality work force, says Francine Charbonneau

Liberal critic for vocational education agrees with Montreal C of C study findings

Mille-Îles Liberal MNA Francine Charbonneau, who is official opposition critic for vocational education in the PLQ shadow cabinet, is in agreement with the conclusions of a recent study by the Chamber of Commerce of Metropolitan Montreal on rebuilding the restaurant and hospitality sectors following the COVID-19 pandemic.

Reviving economy

Both believe the CAQ government needs to increase support for provincially-sponsored vocational education programs that train chefs, table servers, sommeliers and other high-end restaurant staff if this sector of the economy is to fully recover.

In a special report published last week on the state of restauranting in Quebec in the coming post-pandemic era, the Montreal C of C noted that the COVID-19 crisis, which brought massive restaurant closings since early last year, has also resulted in a drastic drop in enrollments at vocational educational institutions teaching cuisine and other skills crucial to the province’s restaurant and hospitality sectors.

Enrollment drops

According to the chamber, the total number of available personnel involved in professional kitchen work has dropped by 22 per cent since early last year, while enrollments at the Montreal-based Institut de tourisme et d’hôtellerie du Québec (Quebec’s leading educational venue for providing secondary-level, college-level, university-level and continuing education for the sector) are down by a full one-third.

Among other points the report makes to help revive the province’s higher-end restauranting sector, it suggests developing the culinary trades, and specifically the cooking trades, in partnership with vocational education institutions and schools.

The interest’s not there

“There’s been a loss of a lot of students,” Francine Charbonneau said in an interview with the Laval News. “First of all, nobody wants to go into hôtellerie right now because everything is closed. These schools teach cooking, learning to serve tables, winery. But students are not buying into the fact that these are jobs that can be learned and done, because everything is closed.”

At the same time, Charbonneau pointed out that for certain skills and professions, it’s impossible to teach them with distance-learning methods. “You have to be there with a teacher who teaches you how the methods and tools are used,” she said. “These are things that can’t be learned just by looking at a video feed. And that’s why these schools are closed now. These are hard times for everyone in this sector.”

Vocational training neglected

Despite the challenges, Charbonneau maintains that Quebec Education Minister Jean-François Roberge seemed to have forgotten during the pandemic about the dire situation in the restaurant and hospitality sector. She maintains that the students’ needs went largely ignored, while vocational education teachers were kept largely in the dark about the protocols they needed to follow during the pandemic.

‘There’s been a loss of a lot of students,’ says Charbonneau, noting the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on vocational and skilled training institutions

“The minister just forgot about them,” said Charbonneau, noting that while the education ministry devoted a lot of attention to the situation of students and staff in the grade school and secondary school sectors, vocational and skills education were largely ignored.

Serious worker shortage

“The minister just didn’t come forward on anything that had to do with adult or vocational training. So, while it’s been a bumpy road, we’ve had to push the minister a bit for answers on what he was going to do.”

Acknowledging that more recently Roberge appears to have wakened up to the challenges facing the restaurant/hostelry/vocational education sectors, Charbonneau said the province’s employment ministry is now facing the reality that there is a serious shortage of workers in key areas of the economy, including hairdressing and other positions requiring skills and training.

Keeping salaries competitive

However, another point she makes (which is also raised by the Chamber of Commerce of Metropolitan Montreal in their report) is that even before the pandemic hit, salaries in several areas of the skilled trades haven’t kept up with other parts of the economy.

“The thinking of the Premier [François Legault] right now is that a job under $58,000 is not a good job,” Charbonneau said. “But if you’re a hairdresser, of if you’re serving in a restaurant, or you’re a cook, it’s not guaranteed that’s the salary you’re going to get.”

Under those circumstances, she suggested the government will still have a lot of work to do to make the restauranting, hospitality and other skilled work areas more able to attract potential workers in order to successfully rebuild Quebec’s post-COVID economy.