Traverse City News and Events

NMC's Culinary Institute Feeling Effects Of Restaurant Labor Shortage

Dec. 13, 2016

For those interested in a career in the culinary arts, the time is now. From signs posted on restaurants across the region to the phone calls being taken at NMC’s Great Lakes Culinary Institute, the demand for restaurant staff is clear. But that need is actually negatively impacting enrollment in culinary classes at Northwestern Michigan College (NMC) -- though that’s only part of the story.

“We’ve had a couple classes canceled. That’s happening across campus,” confirms Fred Laughlin, director of NMC’s Great Lakes Culinary Institute.

Laughlin says during the peak years of 2008 to 2010, NMC had 285 students in the culinary programs; he considers 175 to 200 to be the program’s “sweet spot.” Today, enrollment is around 150. “That’s true across the state. I talked to an individual in Grand Rapids (at the Secchia Institute for Culinary Education). They went from 800 students to 400,” Laughlin says.

Laughlin says the reasons go beyond just the culinary school and industry; he points to a community college truism: when the economy’s good, enrollment is down. During a recession, grants and incentives make returning to school attractive for those looking to change careers or add new skills. “When economic times are good, education gets set aside. Our peak (enrollment) year was 2008,” he says of the college as a whole.

Director of Admissions Cathryn Claerhout adds that the state’s declining high school graduation rate is another key factor. She says the population eligible to enter college peaked in 2010 in Michigan. “High school graduation (levels) have declined since then,” she says. That has led to a dip in enrollment in community colleges across the state.

Back inside the Culinary Institute, Laughlin isn’t worried about the downturn. He tends to see an older student population from Michigan and beyond. He also has high hopes for the culinary program’s new recruiting efforts, something it had not done before but that he’s seen work elsewhere.

“I came here from a private culinary school, and there the recruiter was the second-highest paid employee after the (school) president,” he notes. “Our recruiting started late last year. This year was steady compared to last year. I’m positive we’ll see some growth.”

Stephen Siciliano, NMC’s vice president for educational services, concurs.

“The students at the Culinary Institute are not necessarily right out of high school. They’re from out of the area. And we recently hired a dedicated recruiter,” he confirms.

As for the restaurant job market, Laughlin says it’s reached almost absurd levels.

“This summer was the worst I’ve ever seen it. I had calls every day. The industry is hurting for workers,” Laughlin says, recalling he was even getting calls from the West Coast looking for prospective hires. “Can you send us more students?” he says they asked.

While challenging to the restaurant industry, the shortage of qualified workers means those who do enroll and graduate from the likes of the Great Lakes Culinary Institute graduates can often be very choosy.

“There’s no shortage of jobs for students leaving the program,” says Laughlin. He says many of the students are working while in the program. “Some have two jobs.”
 

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