Sustainably combatting staff shortages: (how) does it work?

Is the hospitality industry a dream career? Of course! The Umwelt-Bildungszentrum Berlin [Berlin Environmental Education Centre] aims to generate good ideas for tackling the staff shortages that have been on the rise for years. And it relies quite literally on sustainable training for the skilled workers of tomorrow.

Umweltbildungszentrum Berlin

‘Help wanted!’ Keep your eyes peeled as you walk through the streets and it’s not long before you spot these notices on the doors and windows of the pubs and restaurants that make our city centres into lively culinary meeting places. There are shortages of trained workers everywhere – waitstaff, kitchen staff, management. 

In the 2nd year of the pandemic, shortages of trained staff have become a serious challenge for the hospitality industry, with the number of employees in regular jobs with contracts falling since the start of the coronavirus crisis. It’s about time for some bright ideas to whet the appetite for a career in the hospitality industry. One of these bright ideas is the concept behind the Umwelt-Bildungszentrum Berlin.

2nd place in the METRO Award for Sustainable Hospitality

Petra Zafisambondaoky and Lena König, instructors at the Umwelt-Bildungszentrum, are delighted. ‘For us, this isn’t just a job – it’s a project close to our hearts.’ In early December 2021, the Umwelt-Bildungszentrum Berlin reached the podium in the final of the METRO Award for Sustainable Hospitality. The jury’s reasons for 2nd place? The centre is putting clear ideas for the future of the hospitality industry into action. It is training the new starters so desperately needed in the industry while focusing on sustainability, an approach that makes the centre a key multiplier in the kitchens of hospitality businesses. 

The award has brought joy to the instructors because they love what they do on the very outskirts of Berlin, in the midst of a nature reserve along the Havel River. ‘People with a wide variety of backgrounds come to us. Some with hospitality experience, but many who are switching from quite different professional fields. Some have been out of work for a long time, some are in open prison, and there are people with a passion for cooking,’ explains Zafisambondaoky. ‘Most (re-)trainees successfully finish their training with us,’ she reports proudly. 

The converted hotel opened in 2014. The centre, which is also a conference and events venue with catering, focuses on retraining and further training for the hospitality industry and hotels, and it concentrates mainly on vegetarianism.

© Jan Voth

Many years of hospitality experience

Zafisambondaoky herself trained at the centre. As an independent catering entrepreneur, she retrained as a chef. She chose a Madagascan focus because her husband comes from Africa and is her culinary inspiration. Now, she is an instructor and course coordinator at the facility. Her colleague Lena König is an instructor and kitchen manager. At 36, she can already look back on 20 years of professional experience in the sector, with initial training as a chef and a diploma in hotel management. As a head chef, she has prepared sophisticated cuisine on the Channel Island of Jersey, in Graz, Austria and in Berlin, Germany – and even on the TV show ‘The Taste’. Both women know what it means to be employed in the hospitality industry.

‘The general working conditions are just tough: unsociable working hours, often with low pay for hard, physical labour. Also, treatment in many businesses is often really harsh and guests are still unwilling to pay an appropriate amount for services and food,’ says Lena König. Her experiences coincide with the findings of the DEHOGA [German Hotel and Restaurant Association] survey, which has been observing the trends in the sector closely since the start of the pandemic.

No appetite for the hospitality industry?

The problem of finding new staff existed before the pandemic and made retaining trained staff in the sector a herculean task. Now, 2 years into the pandemic, the hospitality industry is even less of a dream job for many people. On the other hand, many gastronomy newbies seized the opportunity to try their luck during the crisis. They started businesses using creative gastronomy concepts that don’t depend on typical passing trade in a particular location. According to DEHOGA, more businesses were registered than deregistered in 2021, even though the numbers overall were lower than the previous year. The most promising, according to experts from business consultants McKinsey, are restaurants and cafes that are following the trend towards greater sustainability . Thanks to changes in consumer behaviour during the pandemic, the topic has become a high priority for the hospitality industry.

Sustainable sustainability training

This brings us back to the Umwelt-Bildungszentrum. This is precisely where its training focus comes into its own: providing sustainable training – about sustainability – for the hospitality industry and its new starters. Programme participants receive far more than just the typical hospitality-industry basics and a few tips and tricks along the way. The programme is about teaching sustainable knowledge about food as well as developing an appreciation for the profession. Self-sufficiency and the conscious sourcing of ingredients are just as high on the agenda as sparking a passion for organic production, regionality and seasonality among the trainees. Apprentices train in the in-house conference and catering kitchen, where their own ideas and creativity are expressly encouraged. Retraining usually lasts 2 years, with individual further training modules running for 8 weeks.

Political and social action required

Petra Zafisambondaoky and Lena König are clear that no long-term staff shortage can be solved simply with their sustainable concept. Both women agree that it is fundamentally up to society and politics to do their bit to establish the hospitality industry as an attractive employer – especially now, after 2 years of pandemic operations. ‘What’s needed are financial subsidies for shift work and weekend work, a respectful atmosphere in the businesses and ways for employees to continuously balance their work and private lives,’ says Lena König. For their trainees too, the women have some essential advice. In their view, the vital criterion for success in training, as well as later in a career, is personal motivation. Without conviction and a passion for the hospitality industry, it’s difficult to survive in the sector.

METRO Award for Sustainable Hospitality

Since 2019, METRO Germany has been conferring the METRO Award for Sustainable Hospitality on hospitality industry operators throughout Germany. The award honours businesses that show great commitment and creativity in implementing sustainable hospitality concepts – and are an inspiration to many other independent hospitality entrepreneurs.

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