Wisconsin restaurants strive to get more cooks in the kitchen

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By Erin Eagan

As our economy stabilized after the Great Recession, the restaurant industry began a resurgence not seen in years. With so many new restaurants popping up nationwide, the culinary industry has been facing a surge in job openings — and a shortage of chefs and cooks to fill them.

The shortage is felt right here in Wisconsin, with no relief in sight. In the next 10 years the Wisconsin Restaurant Association expects 26,000 jobs will need to be filled in the state’s $8.4 billion restaurant and food service industry. So where can restaurants turn to fill these positions?

Joseph J. Wollinger, Culinary Arts Program Coordinator at Blackhawk Technical College, believes part of that responsibility falls on the shoulders of the culinary industry itself. “I think the industry as a whole can help recruit entry-level people to consider culinary college,” Wollinger says. “There are a lot of businesses out there that aren’t as attuned to the culinary programs as maybe they could be.”

For the businesses that are, however, Wollinger says it’s a partnership that produces results. “We’ve got great relationships with a lot of employers, and those employers use our campus as a recruitment stop,” he explains. “If they send us students and we send them graduates, then it’s a win-win all around.”

For anyone interested in entering the culinary field, the ongoing shortage is all but guaranteed immediate employment upon completion of a degree — and those prospective students need look no further than their local technical college. More than ever, Wisconsin’s technical colleges have become an integral part of the pipeline to this in-demand field, with hands-on training from qualified instructors. “The (technical college) program instructors are very good at what they do,” says Wollinger. “They’re well-educated, experienced in the field, and they’ve run some of the nicest restaurants around.”

Rather than listen to his sales pitch, Wollinger encourages prospective students to come in and experience the program for a day. “(At Blackhawk Tech), we set prospective students side-by-side with current students and they can ask any questions they’d like,” he explains. “I can talk all I want, but I like to have our students who have been through the first year, especially those who’ve done internships and have been out working in the industry, to talk with new students.”

Further proof of the success of WTCS’ culinary programs is in the numbers. According to a recent survey, 95% of 2015 WTCS culinary graduates were employed within six months of gradation as executive chefs, sous chefs, line cooks as well as restaurant managers. Median entry-level wages for Culinary Management graduates is $31,822 annually, while the starting median annual wages for Culinary Arts grads is $25,270. With so many restaurants seeking quality help, these culinary grads are snatched up well before the ink even dries on their diplomas. And for these individuals, dedication and loyalty are often rewarded by an industry that tends to promote from within.

“Raising a family off their income, having the two cars, the boat in the driveway, all those good things that people want in life are certainly obtainable in this industry,” Wollinger explains. “And it’s a lot easier to get there if you have a degree than if you do not.”