Hospitality businesses on the cusp of feeling some reprieve after a year of devastation and uncertainty are now being hit by a major skills shortage.
Cafes and restaurants in Ballarat and the surrounding region are struggling to find skilled staff to fill vacant roles.
It is not like you can put an add out and fill a gap, it is more complicated than that.Matt Freeman, Fika and Johnny Alloo
Owner and culinary director of Lake House Daylesford Alla Wolf-Tasker AM said finding skilled hospitality staff had been difficult for many years, but COVID-19 significantly worsened the situation.
"I am aware of people who lost their entire teams," she said.
"We have had a lot of hospitality staff give up on waiting and move interstate right across the industry, especially with skilled workers for whom hospitality is a career."
Ms Wolf-Tasker said 95 per cent of the Lake House team had remained, but a number of international workers who the business had sponsored for working visas had made the decision to leave.
"They had no government support so it was difficult for them to hang on with no employment," she said.
"We were doing food boxes and accommodation for them, but a lot left. It has been difficult for many many years which is why we have had to rely on skilled people from overseas
"We are in the process of recruiting now again."
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Owner of Ballarat venues Fika and Johnny Alloo Matt Freeman said he was currently advertising a number of vacancies but there was a lack of skilled applicants.
"It is our constant evolving biggest issue," he said.
"There is a skills shortage in this industry so we are having to train people from scratch which requires work and time.
"It is not like you can put an add out and fill a gap, it is more complicated than that.
"We haven't had this capacity for seven months so we need to hire more people quickly because we have to make use of the business that is there.
"But in another sense these are positions that take time, effort and training to fill and there is a shortfall in that time.
"We are running on the knife edge of being able to operate."
Mr Freeman said he had received an increased number of applications from people living in Melbourne looking to relocate to Ballarat.
Eclectic Tastes Cafe and Pantry owner Jane Miller said she had also received an increased number of applications from Melbourne workers.
She said this was 'absolutely welcomed' amid intense difficulty to find skilled and experienced hospitality employees.
"It is hard to find long term employees and I am not sure whether it is the fact hospitality is more exposed to COVID than other industries and it is putting people off for applying for jobs," she said.
"I think during this time a lot of people who were working in hospitality have left the industry.
"After our first lockdown I lost five experienced front of house people, with only one going back into the industry."
The Turret Cafe and Catering owner Carmel West said the struggle to employ experienced staff meant keeping up with increasing demand and capacity was exhausting.
"I hate putting too much pressure on the staff," she said.
"I would employ two extra people both ends of the business front of house and back of house right now if I could get them.
"I don't quite know what the answer is, but you look anywhere in Ballarat at the moment and there are so many positions available for other cafes as well. We are certainly not alone."
Belinda Eden relaunched her Ballarat hospitality recruitment business Troop Employment to help connect job seekers with hospitality venues.
She said she was offering businesses access to her online jobs platform free of charge to help get businesses back on their feet.
Ms Eden said the platform was a good place for school leavers and professional travellers to advertise their skills and qualifications and when they could work.
"This is about how do we support the businesses that are screaming for staff," she said.
"Where do we find those people? If you are in Ballarat or surrounds and you are looking for work this is the fantastic opportunity to be able to gain employment.
"Hospitality is a consistent evolving space that needs active people wanting to work in the industry."
Ms Wolf-Tasker said the system of training hospitality staff had been failing for some time and a re-think was needed urgently.
She said there was a need to make the industry more attractive through training to encourage more people to make it a career.
Ms Wolf-Tasker is continuing to advocate for the establishment of a Daylesford Institute of Gastronomy that would broaden and re-envision training in the hospitality and food industry.
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"The food industry and the hospitality industry can be broadened so someone doesn't just become a chef, they become a chef with a whole knowledge of food production," she said.
"That could happen by basing a training institute somewhere there is already a strong food hub of small scale artisanal producers like bakers, cheesemakers, apiarists and all kinds of growers which we have around the Daylesford area in spades."
William Angliss Institute has committed as a partner. Ms Wolf-Tasker said they had previously begun talks with the Bendigo UNESCO City of Gastronomy team because Daylesford was part of that UNESCO region.