If you're going out to eat in Sioux Falls, you've got plenty of choices. The city has a massive number of restaurants and about five to ten more places open up every year.
But, in this vast industry, there's a struggle that restaurants try to keep the customer from noticing: a shortage of workers. And some say education plays a big role in feeding this problem and fixing it.
In a culinary class at the Career and Technical Education Academy, high school students learn the ins and outs of cooking, valuable skills that could help them get a job.
If they want a career in the food service industry as a cook, server, manager, you name it, they have a lot of options. According to the city's health department, there are roughly 700 restaurants in Sioux Falls. Executives in the business say they're in desperate need of workers. Proof of that is easy to see with "Now Hiring" signs across the city.
"It's a double-edged sword, it's great for our guests, it's great for our sales, but it's a challenge staffing our restaurants,” says WR Hospitality Training & Recruitment Director Terry Van De Walle.
WR Hospitality owns three restaurants in Sioux Falls: the Phillips Avenue Diner, Red Rossa Pizza and The All Day Café.
Van De Walle says the company offers long-term, good-paying jobs year-round, especially during busy summer months.
“Not uncommon to make $25, $30 an hour, tips and wages. Our pay for our starting cooks equals Minneapolis or Denver in certain areas. Once you pay competitive wages it's all the other things you do to make it a good working environment,” he says.
Despite good pay and opportunities for career advancement, the company is short ten employees right now. They currently have 125 in Sioux Falls and they make adjustments so this gap doesn't affect customers. “The shortage right now impacts us in terms of overtime. It cuts down on the flexibility, sometimes our managers are there picking up tables. We don't want the guests to suffer,” Van De Walle explains.
WR Hospitality is trying new things to hire more workers, like sign-on bonuses for certain positions, incentives for employee referrals and increasing starting wages. But, the problem goes beyond competing restaurants fighting for the same job candidates.
“Our educational system right now doesn't place a lot of value in teaching technical trade and craftsman type of careers. We need to bring back the notion that it's noble to work with your hands again,” Van De Walle says.
He adds that the high school culinary program at CTE is a great head start, but even teachers there admit not a lot of people know about it and there's plenty of room for more students.
Culinary Arts Instructor Megan Jaquet says, “In general we are still a well-kept secret. A lot of the businesses don't even know we're here yet, which we're trying to get the word out.”
Van De Walle says there's no magic bullet to solve the shortage, but he'd like to see changes in higher education.
“More places like the culinary academy in Mitchell, it's just a small program or the hospitality program at South Dakota State University, it's also a small program. We could use more programs and bigger programs.”
Pairing a college degree or tech school diploma with experience and skills learned at a young age could help build a workforce at your service.
Click here for more information about the culinary program at Mitchell Tech, here for more information about the hospitality program at SDSU and here for the Career and Technical Education Academy in Sioux Falls.