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Poor prospects sour F&B sector

With more than 40 years' experience as a Chinese-cuisine chef, Leung Fai-hung has witnessed the rise and fall of the local food and beverage (F&B) industry.

As long hours and tough working environment have made it hard to attract young talent into the F&B trade, the industry is in dire shortage of manpower, worsened by an ageing workforce, says Leung, the executive Chinese chef at Hoi King Heen Chinese Restaurant, at the InterContinental Grand Stanford Hong Kong.

"To keep the business going, it is common industry practice to use freelancers. But this is not a long-term solution. Most of the freelancers are veterans in their 40s and 50s, and after they retire, there will not be enough young people to fill the void," Leung explains.

Employers have suggested more leeway to import F&B talent, but Leung is lukewarm to the idea, as he thinks there is more the industry can do to attract local talent.

"One disadvantage of working in F&B is that there is no structured career path. Many youngsters want such a plan, to enable them to know where they can be after a certain number of years," he explains.

"The lack of training also prevents newcomers from climbing the career ladder. The workload is so heavy that staff do not have time to acquire new skills, so they remain in the same position year after year. If employers pay more attention to offering staff better prospects, more young people will be willing to join," he adds.

Another turnoff is the low pay. Leung says that although employers had raised pay for some positions, overall remuneration in the industry remains unsatisfactory.

"Some employers are paying dishwashers HK$13,000, which is not considered low for such a position, but skilled chefs make only around HK$15,000 to HK$16,000 per month. The pay is not attractive at all, considering the hardship and skills required to become a chef," Leung says.

"A job as a salesperson is less harsh and the pay is about the same. People will choose to move on to those jobs and not stay in the hot kitchen," he says.

If labour is imported, Leung says employers need to pay the extra costs of accommodation and transport. He is also concerned about cultural differences. "Chinese restaurants are likely to employ chefs from the mainland. There will be little communication problem, but they operate a different way and it takes time and resources for locals and imported workers to gel," he says.