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Upscale restaurants can’t find workers

Despite jobless rate, facilities scramble to fill high-skilled positions and part-time shifts

Will Gilson had difficulty hiring when he opened Puritan & Company a year ago. Today, he is still looking.

Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff

Will Gilson had difficulty hiring when he opened Puritan & Company a year ago. Today, he is still looking.

Will Gilson (left), directed a staff meeting at Puritan & Company. Many cooks he has interviewed are either seeking a second part-time job or are culinary school graduates expecting more pay than what the restaurant offers.

Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff

Will Gilson (left), directed a staff meeting at Puritan & Company. Many cooks he has interviewed are either seeking a second part-time job or are culinary school graduates expecting more pay than what the restaurant offers.

Shang Skipper is running out of time to solve a problem he never expected. In a few weeks, Skipper plans to open Del Frisco’s Grille in Chestnut Hill, and despite the state’s relatively high unemployment rate, he can’t find enough workers to fill well-paying jobs with benefits at the chain restaurant.

Over the past month, Skipper has scoured college campuses, hosted a booth at a Cambridge job fair, and slipped into after-hours hangouts popular with bar and restaurant workers to woo prospective hires. Despite those recruiting efforts, he said, 30 positions remain open.

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“It’s surprising that we see these unemployment numbers and still aren’t getting enough applicants,” he said.

But at many upscale restaurants in the Boston area, that seems to be the case. Even with 250,000 people out of work in Massachusetts, restaurant owners say they have vacancies for positions ranging from part-time host to experienced sous chef.

Economists cite several factors for the job-employee gap: a mismatch between the part-time jobs available and the full-time work most people need, a lack of skilled chefs, and restaurateurs who are being too choosy.

The hiring situation is dramatically different from just a few years ago. Back then, restaurants that managed to make it through the recession had their pick of top-notch workers from competitors that went out of business or were forced to cut staff.

With the improving economy and a rise in consumer confidence, people are eating out more frequently. That has led to an influx of new establishments. Bars and restaurants in the state added more than 15,000 employees from 2010 to 2012, three times the growth rate between 2008 and 2010, according to the Census Bureau.

“It’s become a much tighter and more competitive work environment,” said Bob Luz, president of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association. “The economy is on the road to recovery, and the talent pool is thinner.”

Lack of experience might not matter much for most jobs at Dunkin’ Donuts, but it is crucial for an establishment like Puritan & Company in Cambridge, which earlier this year received a prestigious James Beard Award nomination for best new restaurant in the United States.

Will Gilson, owner and chef of the Inman Square restaurant, said he had difficulty hiring for all positions — even servers, who make $120 to $250 in tips a night — when he opened a year ago. Today, he is still looking for cooks with the right attitude and background.

The problem is many of the cooks Gilson has interviewed are either seeking a second part-time job — when he needs them six days a week — or they are culinary school graduates who expect more than the $38,000 maximum Puritan & Company pays someone with a freshly minted diploma or certificate.

Thanks to television networks’ insatiable appetite for cooking competition shows, being a chef has never seemed so cool, which means there is no shortage of people eager to toil over a gas flame. But restaurateurs complain that few of the newbies they have encountered have the culinary chops to match their egos.

Labor specialists agree. They say demand for top-skilled chefs is outstripping supply as the industry rebounds from the downturn.

“Culinary schools try to set you up and prepare you, but sometimes they over-prepare you and you think you’re Julia Child, but you’re not,” said Jason Santos, who recently opened Back Bay Harry’s and is involved in other restaurants. He joined the ranks of celebrity chefs after appearing on Fox television’s “Hell’s Kitchen” in 2010. “I have people that want to go on TV, but can’t cut a carrot,” Santos said.

Others, like Skipper of Del Frisco’s, say they just aren’t getting enough candidates in the door. He said he had typically received 1,500 to 2,000 applications when opening other restaurants for the chain, but fewer than 500 have come in for the Chestnut Hill location.

Last year, there were 1.8 job seekers for every opening in the restaurant industry statewide, a relatively low rate compared with other sectors. But a closer look at that data shows more than two-thirds of openings were for part-time work, while the majority of unemployed people were seeking full-time positions.

“People are not willing to take a part-time job that is low- wage when they have a house to pay and a family to feed,” said Andrew Sum, director of Northeastern University’s Center for Labor Market Studies.

Sum is reluctant to say there is a labor shortage in the restaurant industry, since there are more unemployed workers than jobs and wages have not risen in 12 years. He believes restaurants could fill many positions simply by offering more hours and a little extra training. It might just be that they are creating unreasonable requirements for too little pay, he said.

“It’s hard for me to argue that the shortage isn’t self-contrived,” Sum said.

But Luz, of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association, said restaurants have good reason to be selective in a business where success hinges on quality service.

“It’s the difference maker,” he said. “Restaurants oftentimes buy the same food from the same purveyor. They cook it on the same grills, and they might even serve it on the same plate. What makes the difference is the ambience and the exceptional service that separates you from every competitor out there.”

Taryn Luna can be reached at taryn.luna@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @tarynluna.
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