PETALING JAYA: Eateries are too short-staffed and desperate for workers to deal with the surge of Malaysians dining out again after three years of managing Covid-19.
According to the Statistics Department, the services sector played a significant role in driving the country’s economic recovery in the fourth quarter of 2022, with the F&B and accommodations sub-sector registering a 25.2% growth rate.
However, many eateries, including Chinese restaurants, are hard-pressed to find enough workers to meet that burgeoning demand.
Restoran LFF proprietor Stephanie Wong, 55, has been trying without luck for years to find local workers to work as cooks and servers at her Kuala Lumpur-based eatery.
She was forced to close her restaurant for a year during the pandemic due to a severe staff shortage before reopening it in February this year.
“Currently, I have six workers, but ideally, I would need eight to run the restaurant. My husband, Choong Siew Hoi, 55, is a one-man show in the kitchen as the head chef. I’ve been trying to find a second cook for three months, but until now, not many people have come for an interview,” she added.
Wong said besides workers leaving the restaurant industry to seek careers elsewhere, especially after many eateries closed during the pandemic, there are serious difficulties in attracting a local workforce.
She said candidates she spoke to would rather run their own small businesses, such as opening a food court stall, work in the gig economy or take up jobs at other outlets that offer higher salaries, even with no work experience.
“For example, for wait-staff with no experience, I can offer RM1,500, but they are asking for RM2,000, which is very high. Meanwhile, for a second cook, we can offer a salary of more than RM3,000, but until now, no local has taken the job,” she added.
Wong, who sees no end to her plight, expects things to stay that way and, to get by, she is streamlining operations and cutting operating hours to only lunch and dinner time. “Thankfully, my customers are very understanding when I explain my situation,” she said.
Petaling Jaya Coffee Shop Association president Keu Kok Ming said Chinese restaurants need skilled local workers. Still, the long working hours turn prospective candidates away even if the pay is attractive, he said.
Keu said retail cafes and artisan coffee shops can attract more workers, such as students, while Chinese coffee shops and restaurants find it difficult to do so as it is a different kind of work.
“It’s considered a 3D (dangerous, dirty and difficult) job as not all Chinese coffee shops and restaurants have air-conditioning and the hours are long,” he said.
Keu said there is a need to get the younger generation into the Chinese coffee shop and restaurant trade, but there are many challenges. “It’s a whole new process,” he added.
Pan Malaysia Koo Soo Restaurants and Chefs Association deputy chairman Datuk Ringo Kaw said many job opportunities overseas, such as in China, Macao, Hong Kong and Singapore, as well as aboard cruise ships, had opened up for local chefs trained in Chinese cuisine after pandemic restrictions were lifted.
Enticed by these opportunities, these chefs tend to shun job offers from local restaurants as the salary and experience are not as attractive, he said. He said many chefs also left the F&B industry to become gig workers when the pandemic struck and do not wish to change their lifestyle.
“One way to overcome this is to have more culinary arts academies to train more young people to work in the Chinese restaurant industry. Most culinary schools teach Western cooking while there is a shortage of training in Chinese cooking and culinary arts.
“The government can give more support by either talking to the Chinese restaurant associations to open more Chinese cooking schools or talking to culinary arts academies to offer more Chinese cooking curriculums to train the younger generation,” he said.
Kaw also said restaurant owners must change their mindset in tandem with the workforce’s needs and increase workers’ benefits so that employees will stay.
Sunway Le Cordon Bleu general manager Ming Rathswohl Ho said that to plug the F&B industry chef shortage, the government could offer foreign students graduating from culinary schools a visa to stay and work in the industry.
She said these students who came here to study had good training and education in the culinary sector and could serve as part of a skilled workforce to ease the chef shortage in Malaysia.
“Many of these students are willing to stay back and work. The government can help by extending their visa so they can stay back for one or two years to work here,” she added.
Concurrently, she said that more could be done to try to retain locals in the industry.
She said offering higher wages, better work-life balance and value-added incentives for employees’ future development are among the measures that could be taken.
“The industry must recognise them and pay them accordingly. Restaurants can also practise four- or five-day work weeks so that workers can have a longer rest from work,” she said.
Malaysia Retail Chain Association (MRCA) past president and Rotol Group (M) Sdn Bhd founder and group managing director Datuk Seri Garry Chua suggested turning to culinary students to ease the manpower shortage in the F&B industry.
“There should be more extensive recruitment of students whereby the government can encourage more of them to take up culinary science as the future is very bright for the F&B industry.
“The government can also consider giving out more student loans and grants for culinary science to encourage students to join the industry as cooks,” he said.