As he takes on an influential new position with WorldSkills UK, popular local hospitality figure, Sean Owens, has spoken out about Brexit and the shortage of skilled hospitality labour in Northern Ireland.
One of the best known figures in Northern Ireland’s hospitality sector has told LCN that he believes current difficulties around the sourcing of suitably qualified staff here are getting worse.
Respected chef and hospitality trainer, Sean Owens, has also likened the full impact of Brexit on existing recruitment problems in Northern Ireland to “a juggernaut” which, he says, is approaching but has yet to strike.
Speaking in mid-August, Sean said that he and others had been telling politicians in Northern Ireland about the urgent need for redress in hospitality recruitment for some time
“We have been drawing attention to this since well before the Executive went down and the reality now is that the situation is getting worse,” he added.
“I was in Dublin recently and they have built 79 hotels there in eight years. Yesterday, I looked at the skyline in Belfast and hotels are opening up everywhere. The question needs to be asked, where are the staff coming from? We can’t get housekeepers, chefs or waiters, so what are we going to do?”
Calling for the restoration of hospitality as a ‘priority skills area’, Sean said that it was essential that the industry be made more appealing to potential new recruits:
“Industry attractiveness issues are one of the biggest things affecting us at present,” he added.
Sean also indicated that in his new role as culinary arts training manager with WorldSkills UK, he would be “trying to grasp the nettle” and make a difference for the sector in the UK as a whole, particularly in relation to major issues such as Brexit:
“This is going to be a showstopper for a lot of us,” he warned. “No-one knows the implications of this. Things are fairly good at the moment, you can see that on the Belfast skyline, but my own view is that there is a juggernaut waiting for us when we realise that our supply of so-called foreign workers is no longer available to us and the skills gap, which has been widening, will become an epidemic.”
Sean also said that he believed it wasn’t acceptable for government to “sit on their hands and pontificate from their silos”:
“I think all of them are afraid of Brexit,” he stated. “But whether you look at this as an opportunity or as a dysfunctional effort to get yourself into whatever jurisdiction you favour, the reality for all of us is that this uncertainty isn’t helping secure the development of our young people in hospitality.
“But we are trying to solve the problem in a very piecemeal manner. What we need now is a multidisciplinary approach, it’s not just about chefs, the public and private sectors need to work together. On a personal basis, I am trying hard, lobbying and networking with hotels and restaurants on the ground to try and find some approach that will alleviate these problems, at least for a while.”
Originally from Derry-Londonderry, Sean Owens is well-known across the entire hospitality industry in Northern Ireland. Previously the owner and head chef of Gardiners G2 restaurant in Magherafelt and a key figure in the establishment of the catering department at Springvale Training Ltd., in west Belfast, Sean now operates his own independent chef consultancy, SoFood in tandem with his new role at WorldSkills UK, where he is responsible for training UK WorldSkills squad members in preparation for international cookery competitions, including the prestigious WorldSkills event itself.
For many in the sector locally, however, Sean is best known for his long-running association with the leading hospitality and retail event, IFEX, where he has been deeply involved as Salon Culinaire director for many years.
This isn’t the first time that Sean has raised a red flag over recruitment trends in hospitality here. Speaking to LCN as far back as 2014, he warned then of a need for more people to get involved in hospitality training. He also called for greater collaboration between the industry and the training agencies in order to foster greater understanding between catering professionals and the colleges.
Sean’s new role with WorldSkills UK is based in London, although he works predominantly from his home in Ballyronan. Sean’s been involved with WorldSkills – which champions technical excellence through competition – in some form or other since 1995. In his new position as culinary arts training manager, he takes responsibility for a four-strong team of specially-selected trainees whom he then grooms for national and international competition.
The next big challenge which his team will face will be on in late September when one of them – a young female chef from Glasgow – will represent the UK in Budapest at the Euroskills 2018 event.
“I took this new position on in June following a round of intensive interviews and presentations in London at the HQ of the Craft Guild of Chefs,” said Sean. “That was quite a daunting experience but I was fairly confident because I’d gone for the same post 20 years before. I knew then that I didn’t have the time to execute it properly but now, I have a lot more strings to my bow. I understand national competitions much better and I have a sound track record in the UK and internationally for bringing people to the required standard for national and international events.”
Sean’s team will be looking forward to August next year when the international WorldSkills final is held in Kazan in Russia. Final team selection for that event will take place in March.
Meanwhile, Sean confirmed that arrangements for the next IFEX event in Belfast are progressing well. The huge hospitality and retail event returns to the city in 2020 and planning is already in progress to ensure another successful exhibition.