With restaurants on long-term hiatus, some workers move on

·4 min read

Marco Chumacero had worked in hospitality on and off since his early 20s and was on the verge of securing a bar manager job at Labora, a tapas bar in downtown Toronto, when it was forced to shut its doors in March last year.

The Spanish restaurant at the corner of King and Spadina has — along with the rest of Toronto’s bars, pubs, restaurants and other sites where hospitality workers earn a wage — mostly stayed closed ever since.

And Chumacero, like hundreds of thousands of other young Canadian workers in the industry, has moved on.

“We thought for a very long time that it was not going to last more than three months,” Chumacero, now 30, recalled of the early public health restrictions of the COVID-19 pandemic’s first wave. “That was not the case. I did nothing for quite some time.”

Across Canada, there are still more than a half a million fewer jobs now than there were in February 2020, the last month unaffected by COVID-19, Statistics Canada said last month. Most of that gap comes from job losses in accommodation and food services, especially sales and service positions, the agency says.

Last year, almost a quarter of workers trained by NPower Canada, a charitable organization that helps underserved young adults launch new careers, came from hospitality, chief operating officer Andrew Reddin said, and they have mostly ended up in IT support jobs.

“The encouraging news is that those folks who have been displaced from roles in hospitality, from retail, from other customer-facing roles, have such great transferable skills for roles that are also client-facing, but involve digital skills and have more sustainable career pathways,” Reddin said.

Chumacero is one of them. He joined around 1,000 other young people who went through a free three-month virtual tech career boot camp run by NPower last year. Soon after, he was hired by TouchBistro to make sure its software, used by wait staff to take orders and tally bills, works to its customers' satisfaction.

As so much more of life has relied on remote tech solutions since COVID-19, “that's really created career pathways for young people that require digital skills” not expected to expire with the pandemic, Reddin said.

Customer service workers can help businesses and retail customers fix their wireless internet problems, for example, while manual labourers offer attention to detail and a structured approach that's good for quality assurance and control roles, he added.

Meanwhile, hospitality, which typically offers long, late or casual hours and limited benefits, now finds itself in a competitive market for staff since many in its workforce have been forced to find other ways to make a living for more than a year.

In Ontario, street-side and patio drinking and dining is only just starting up again after a long hiatus, with indoor dining still to come, and national advocacy group Restaurants Canada last month warned that half the country's restaurants may not survive the summer without federal government wage subsidies and other supports Ottawa is trying to wean businesses off.

Chumacero says he doesn’t know where he’d be now if not for COVID-19’s disruption, but expects it would still involve hospitality, “since it was paying my bills.”

Instead, the bilingual product support specialist was training other people within three weeks of starting his new job back in January and eyeing advancement to provide higher-level service or even lead a team within a year.

“I never thought I'd code, but that's what I want to do now,” he said in a video interview. “I want to do front-end coding, website design, stuff like that. I might move into back-end design in the future, but I don't know, that's really stressful.”

Now taking evening web development classes at Juno College, previously known as HackerYou, he hopes to become a junior developer by the end of next year and to one day work as an AI engineer at Apple or Google.

“It’s going to be a journey, but I’m there, and I’m sticking to it,” said Chumacero, who studied sociology at university in his early 20s, but dropped out due to financial insecurity.

“This path seems more my style. It’s more healthy for me in terms of sleep patterns and being in an environment where I feel more content,” he said. “Nighttimes and long hours and no insurance is not really ideal for a 30-year-old, especially if you want children in five to 10 years.”

Morgan Sharp, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, National Observer

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