Bakers wanted: Attracting staff in a difficult job...

Bakers wanted: Attracting staff in a difficult job market

As numbers entering the baking industry continue to fall across the country, what can the industry do to attract – and retain – staff willing to work the long hours and put in the hard yards sometimes required to operate a business successfully?

In the past few years, the Australian baking industry has encountered the dual issue of falling apprentice numbers combined with a national shortage of workers.

Beyond impacting staffing levels, this shortage can have additional impacts on a business’s ability to be able to operate effectively and even to be able to make a full product range.

Blackbutt Bakery, in Queensland’s South Burnett region, is one business that has been affected by staffing issues, and recently made the decision to cease its bread line in late 2023 partly due to the difficulty of encouraging the younger generation in continuing in the bread baking trade.

“This is sadly beyond our control and [we] assure you we’ve done everything possible for 13 years to bring you fresh baked bread daily,” the bakery announced.

But, how can the baking industry address this issue head on?

Education and training

According to the Factors that contribute to retention and completion rates for apprentices and trainees report by the National Centre for Vocational Education Research, one major finding was that, “trainees who completed the traineeship were more likely to have been motivated by the desire to acquire skills than those who did not complete. Alternatively, those who did not complete were more likely to have been motivated by want of a job or income”.

To put it simply, one step could be to bring the focus back to the quality of training an apprentice receives, in addition to educating school leavers about the career opportunities that lie within the baking industry.

Gumnut Patisserie owners Tracy and Vicki Nickl are great supporters of both these pillars. The duo take every available opportunity to give talks at schools about the options the baking trade can provide, and are also well-known for their business ethos: that in order to raise the industry’s profile, it’s vital to focus on education and to pass on the knowledge through training apprentices.

It’s something they describe as being a no-brainer.

“Investing in that training is hard; having apprentices can be hard. But the reality is if we don’t all take on apprentices there is no future for our trade,” Tracy said.

“The way we do it is we make sure there’s the opportunity. We invest our time, effort, love and care into them and spend a lot of time one-on-one with them training. If you don’t train, you’re never going to attract anyone to the industry.”

The Nickls currently take on two new apprentices at Gumnut Patisserie each year, working closely with them to ensure they master the basics and then slowly progressing. It’s this close attention and firm focus on the importance of imparting knowledge as well as skills, they say, that is an element that can often be missed in training.

In fact, there have even been times when Tracy and Vicki have taken on an apprentice who has technically completed their apprenticeship but were still lacking vital knowledge that would see them advance in the industry.

“We’ve had a few that have either done their apprenticeship and finished, or their bosses sign them out early, and then I feel they don’t actually know enough,” Vicki said.

“They come here and then we train them again because I don’t want someone with that much passion leaving the industry. They might not even start over with us, but we go back to basics and do the fundamentals.”

Rethinking the business structure

Early starts, long hours, weekend work and a demanding workload are often brought up as barriers for people staying in the baking industry long term.

However, rethinking how a business operates could be another key to retaining staff. Namely, would it be possible to eliminate the midnight starts and instead bake items on demand during the day?

For Perth-based bakers Zachary Flemming and Thomas Radford of Everyday Bread, this is precisely what they did

Rather than waking with the birds they would instead bake throughout the day, with the additional advantage of this becoming a positive marketing technique for the business as well. The smell of bread baking would often lure consumers to their door on their way past the store.

“We were baking through the day and people kept coming past and saying hello. People asked what we were doing and we showed them,” Thomas said.

Consumers would stand and watch through the window as Zachary and Thomas worked, filling the shelves with an array of loaves and, as demand for their products grew, so did their business, with Everyday Bread slowly transforming from a wholesale business to a retail shopfront and then to a canteen.

Zachary said they made the decision to not bake during the night simply because it wasn’t sustainable long-term.

“I sacrificed a lot of parties and sleep and was just absent-minded for a big part of my life because I was going to work in the middle of the night and baking bread and not eating properly, not sleeping properly,” he said.

“So when we opened I didn’t want to be doing night shifts. I love this trade so much, and that’s what tires people out.”

Tracy and Vicki took another route when it came to eliminating night work, instead bringing in machinery that could do it instead.

It’s a move they describe as being an investment back into their business in more ways than one.

“We don’t have staff working overnight because we’ve got the equipment to do that, therefore the lifestyle [is better]. We don’t have to start at midnight,” Vicki said.

“All of our team also work only one day on the weekend, and we have a rotating roster. We can then shuffle it around and make sure it works. Once you start doing things like this [for your staff] they will bend over backwards to help you, which then means having that positive team culture.

“It’s not rocket science. They’ll be there for each other, and they’ll be there for your business too.”

For businesses based outside of metropolitan areas, offering accommodation to employees has also become an option in recent years.

Victorian-based Only Hospitality Group, the parent company of Juliette Coffee and Bread, has a policy for its Melbourne-based staff to receive free accommodation if they choose to work a shift at one of the business’s Geelong or Mornington Peninsula sites, while in Western Australia Kimbercrust Bakery has offereds free accommodation to bakers willing to relocate and to work over the wet season.

So, although the baking industry may be facing the challenge of increasing numbers entering the industry, with a little ingenuity and out-of-the-box thinking, it can be possible to retain them.

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