Our hunger for bread and muffins may be insatiable, but grocery stores, restaurants, and pastry shops are increasingly struggling to find one key ingredient: the bakers to make them all.
Massachusetts technology firms and health care companies have been in the trenches of the talent war for years, offering bonuses and padding benefits to lure skilled workers. But with the state’s unemployment rate dropping to its lowest level in 16 years in December, to 2.8 percent, a wider swath of businesses are now experiencing hiring woes, and baking jobs are among the latest to go unfilled.
Bakeries around the region said they are boosting salaries, deploying recruiters to hunt for kitchen staff, offering workers referral bonuses, even going as far as Canada and California to find skilled workers.
“The last six months have been particularly challenging,” said Joanne Chang, the owner of Flour Bakery. ”We’ve been short-staffed at some of the bakeries for months at a time.”
Flour needs to fill three baker jobs and a pastry chef position right now and in a few months will have to find another four bakers when the company opens a new location near the Prudential Center, Chang said.
At Roche Bros. Supermarkets Inc., a Wellesley-based grocery chain, the churn of hires and job openings is constant as workers leave for better pay or decide that weekend or early morning shifts are too tough.
“We might hire three to five bakers and lose two to three the following week,” said Joe Curtin, the director of recruiting, training, and development for the grocer. “Right now, it’s probably the toughest I’ve seen it at Roche Bros., in terms of finding help and good help.”
Bakeries are facing many of the same challenges hitting other industries in a rising economy and tight labor market, said Alicia Sasser Modestino, an economics and public policy professor at Northeastern University.
In recent months, manufacturers, retailers, and restaurants have told the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston that they are struggling to fill positions. The Fed compiles an informal survey on the state of the economy throughout the year.
Baking is also a physically demanding job, requiring constant standing, attention to detail to ensure that ingredients are properly measured out, creativity, and skill with expensive mixers and other equipment. Shifts include late nights and early mornings, to ensure that the croissants, cakes, and breads are out before the first customers walk in. It’s also generally a lower paying job, with salaries just a few dollars above the state minimum wage of $11 an hour.
The reality of the job is far from the romantic image many have of a baker in the kitchen whipping up sweet confections, bakery owners said.
“The work is demanding,” said Thomas Stohr, cofounder of Swissbakers in Allston.
And as more bakeries have turned to automation to handle simple tasks, the work they need their workers to perform has become increasingly more complex and specialized, Modestino said.
“Just like almost any other profession, anything that can be done and automated, has been done,” Modestino said. “The demand is for speciality work.”
The shortage of bakers comes as many grocery stores and bakeries are looking to expand, buoyed by rising consumer confidence in the economy and a willingness to more regularly splurge on $4 cinnamon buns, $10 sandwiches, or pricey specialty cakes.
They’re also facing tougher competition for the same workers as more and more restaurants open up in the Boston area, including new entrants, such as Eataly, the 45,000-square-foot Italian food emporium, that opened last year.
Chang said she has lost some of her bakers to hotels, larger chains, and catering companies where the pay may be better. Or they’ve switched careers in search of better benefits and hours.
The average annual wage for bakers in Massachusetts was $30,460 in 2015, far lower than the $59,000 the average worker in the state earned, according to the latest data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Gender also may play a role, Modestino said.
Baking has traditionally been a job filled by women interested in the culinary arts, but as more opportunities open up for women as chefs and owners of restaurants, the number considering jobs in baking has shrunk, she said.
“With the supply of women in culinary schools going into baking declining, these skilled bakers have become harder to find,” Modestino said.
Employers said they are trying to make baking jobs more appealing and expanding their recruiting efforts.
At Swissbakers, employees who make referrals earn $500. Roche Bros. is working on an internship program with Johnson & Wales University, the Providence culinary school. Tatte Bakery and Cafe recently increased the wages of its bread bakers to about $16 an hour and has paid for employees to relocate from elsewhere in the country.
“If I know of a bread baker that is available, I will offer the most amount I can to offer to win that person,” said Tzurit Or, the founder of Tatte. “There are no lines of bread bakers.”