Rising to the challenge of staff shortages

Rising to the challenge of staff shortages

Among some of the challenges currently facing the retail industry is the recruitment and retention of staff, something which has become more significant following the pandemic as employees now tend to shift between jobs more often.

One notable sector that is finding this particularly relevant is the bakery sector. With the rise of bakery departments in shop settings, as well as the traditional bakeries in towns and villages across the province, owners and managers are finding it increasingly difficult to reach a full quota of staff.

With priorities shifting and more and more people striving for a better work-life balance, finding staff willing to work the unsociable hours the bakery sector demands is among the reasons for this.

“There is definitely a shortage in qualified bakers,” Katrina Collins, co-owner of Lisburn-based The Daily Apron tells NR.

“However, there is an additional issue which we have experienced a number of times and it relates to apprentices, including qualified baker apprentices.

“We have found on multiple occasions they might have skills, but they are not work-ready for the industry. There is a lack of understanding about the pressured environment of a bakery and how time is money.

“There is also a reluctance to start early shifts despite this being a defining aspect of the baking world.”

Having spoken to her colleagues in the industry, Katrina said they are all facing the same issues.

“They have said this is even more pronounced after covid. With options to work from home or indeed set up their own micro-bakery, it’s really difficult.”

Katrina, who owns and runs award-winning The Daily Apron with her partner Cathy Stevenson, opened the bakery in October 2021, and have run their own 80-seat café in the Smyth Patterson’s department store for over 11 years.

‘The conditions associated with baking, such as early mornings, being physically demanding and rates of pay make it both difficult to recruit and retain’

Heading an all-female team of 15 staff ranging in ages from 15 to 56, Katrina said they pride themselves on having a very nurturing environment and indeed, have also sent people on apprenticeships, who have then come back to work with them.

Having encountered the challenge of recruiting and retaining staff, she said they are trying to address this in-house.

“We have decided to train staff we already have, who we know are a great fit for the business,” she said.

Owners of Lisburn bakery, The Daily Apron, Katrina Collins and Cathy Stevenson.

“It speaks to the importance of attitude, aptitude and work ethic over skills. Skills can be taught and we are very much a teaching business.

“The conditions associated with baking, such as early mornings, being physically demanding and rates of pay make it both difficult to recruit and retain.”

“Some people may be put off by the early starts as is typical of commercial bakeries,” agreed Jonathan McCullagh, co-owner of McCullagh’s Classic in Omagh.

With an in-store bakery at their SPAR site, Jonathan is all-too-aware of the staffing challenges.

“There appears to be a lot of vacancies in the jobs market for qualified bakers in general. This however, is not unique just to bakers and is widespread among many other professions and sections of the economy,” said Jonathan.

“One of the market changes during covid saw the emergence of bakers setting up niche markets from their homes and using social media to promote and sell their products. Therefore, leaving it increasingly difficult for commercial bakers to hire bakers.

“There are also many other opportunities for bakers who maybe want a change in career – there is no shortage of job options with a lot of employers struggling to fill various positions in most sectors of the economy.”

Jonathan describes the bakery team at his store as “small” as they produce for their resale items in their single store, and said they were “very lucky” to have had no vacancies in their bakery department for a number of years.

“It’s always challenging to attract and retain the best talent, but we are very fortunate to have an amazing bakery team. We have first-class facilities and a great working environment for all our staff. Flexible working hours is also a big attraction to our staff.”

‘I do not see the labour shortage easing in the short-term, so businesses will have to look at how best to make production less labour intensive’

He said that having spoken to others in the sector, he said they are aware of the challenges facing their colleagues.

“Some of the local bakery suppliers have been experiencing acute staffing shortages, which has hampered their productions and left some of the more labour-intensive products to produce as long-term unavailables,” he said.

“I imagine the larger bakeries will be looking to automate their productions processes as much as possible. I do not see the labour shortage easing in the short-term, so businesses will have to look at how best to make production less labour intensive in order to cope with less staff available in the workforce.

The in-store bakery at McCullagh’s Classic, Omagh.

“There will however, always be a market for local scratch bakeries as people will pay a premium for these products as a treat.”

Katrina Collins said the current situation was “very concerning indeed” and added it was vital for communication and collaboration to avoid crippling staff shortages in the future.

“We believe there needs to be a bigger collaboration between industry and training institutions,” she said.

“We have worked closely with a further and higher education providers to share our experiences with baking apprentices. It feels that there is a curriculum to deliver rather work ready bakers,” she added.

“The government could listen to business problems and do a lot more to help certain industries experiencing acute labour shortages, such as issuing more skilled worker visas,” added Jonathan.

“Staff retention is key. Making the working conditions as good as possible, offering flexible working hours where possible and creating a happy work environment can all go some way to alleviate the situation.”