First published in The Courier –

It may appear as though the hospitality industry is booming in regional Victoria, with an increasingly rich tapestry of small businesses starting new food and accommodation ventures.

But Alla Wolf-Tasker, owner and culinary director of Lake House Daylesford, says the hospitality industry is in crisis.

A skills shortage in the industry has made it difficult for award-winning businesses like Lake House to hire enough highly skilled staff.

Walking through the doors of Lake House, guests are welcomed by professional staff from a wide range of cultural backgrounds.

Wolf-Tasker said the team had always struggled to hire enough people of a highly skilled level only from Australia.

“There is either not enough of them (people who have worked at Michelin level restaurants and five or six star hotels), or the few that are around are reluctant to relocate into regional areas. This has been our experience forever,” Wolf-Tasker said.

“When we advertise in Australia, for people with considerable experience and the kind of skills that we need at a very top to middle level, there is just resounding silence.”

The problem, Wolf-Tasker says, stems from the kinds of training opportunities that are available and attitudes in Australia where hospitality has never been a particularly popular choice as a long-term career.

“Often hospitality is thought of as something one might embark on whilst studying something else,” she said.

Alla Wolf-Tasker announces the Institute of Gastronomy at Lake House in September. Picture: Kate Healy

The Daylesford Institute of Gastronomy (DIG), currently in feasibility and planning stages, hopes to upskill culinary professionals and offer educational programs capturing the growing interest in food provenance, centred around good food and its connection to regenerative farming. Electives in addition to traditional culinary skills could offer tuition and immersion in artisan skills like cheese-making, butchery, sourdough making and fermentation.

The new institute would hope to offer an alternative to current fast tracked courses and programs with a lack of further up-skilling options.

“Perhaps keeping an eye on trends in interests amongst young people might facilitate a journey into hospitality based on knowledge and self-development rather than on mere celebrity. I can recall how passionate I felt about the culinary arts and how hard I was prepared to work and to learn. DIG just might provide an innovative solution to how we train young people in Australia,” Wolf-Tasker said.

Nicholas Hunt (CEO William Angliss Institute), Alla Wolf-Tasker AM, Stuart Benjamin (Regional Development Australia), and Mary-Anne Thomas MP celebrate the funding announcement for a feasibility study into the Institute of Gastronomy. Picture: Kate Healy

Lake House employs around 110 to 120 staff at any one time, many whom moved to Australia on visas and have now become permanent residents.

Lake House staff member, Ba Loi Pham (known as Jey) became an Australian citizen in a ceremony at Daylesford Town Hall on Thursday.

Wolf-Tasker said Jey was one of almost 100 international staff members who had, over three decades, been sponsored by Lake House and who had gone on to become permanent residents and citizens.

But recent Australian Government changes to visa regulation and changes coming into force in March will impact the supply of international staff, Wolf-Tasker said.

The maximum duration of the new Temporary Skills Shortage (TSS) visa, which will replace the 457 visa, will be four years from March 2018. Changes to the occupation lists for temporary and permanent skilled visas may be made every six months.

Wolf-Tasker said regulations and timing around permanent residency will become far more onerous.

“If there is a skill shortage and you haven’t got Australians jumping into the profession, then why not employ people who do want to be a part of the profession and train, even the ones without the skills? They do go on to be fruitful members of Australia’s tourism and hospitality workforce – an industry that is crying out for more workers,” she said.

“I have got senior personnel in hospitality in just about every state in Australia who were sponsored by us and trained at Lake House. It has been a good thing and it is about to grind to a terrible halt.

Lake House staff in June. Picture: Dylan Burns

“The reason most of us have had to employ foreign workers is because we couldn’t find sufficiently qualified or interested Australians. It certainly isn’t because it was easier.

“New up front costs for employers to hire workers on visas will  be considerable, ranging from $5000, to $7,200 per person. That’s on top of the cost of the actual visa.

“The particular occupations you can get visas for will be limited, far more than they have been in the past, as will the path to permanent residency.”

Wolf-Tasker said applications from overseas for senior positions had just about dried up since the earliest changes were announced by the federal government last July.

“You cannot talk to anyone in hospitality, city or country, who will tell you that they can find staff. A lot people, especially in regional areas, are resisting building their businesses or investing in additional infrastructure… There are people who have the capacity to build their business, the demand is there and we do need regional growth, but they can’t because they can’t get the staff they need,” she said.

“The government is going to have to make it a bit easier for people to stick their neck and invest in regional Australia. The provision of a well trained capable workforce is critical.

“Hospitality and tourism is so lauded in Australia – we market it so heavily. Making things more difficult seems to be an inappropriate response for something we say we are so proud of.”