26 Jan 2023

Staff shortages back in the spotlight as student workers return to university

9:52 am on 26 January 2023
Cooks in a restaurant kitchen.

Business owners in Te Anau say student workers helped to plug staff shortages over the summer but it will be difficult for them to operate their businesses at 100 percent as those students head back to university. Photo: 123rf

Te Anau businesses are bracing for more staff shortages as student workers return to their studies in the coming weeks.

Some businesses are already operating with reduced hours and menus, and the situation is expected to worsen unless the staffing gaps can be plugged.

It has been a busy summer for Te Anau as the town embraces the return of overseas tourists.

Southland District councillor and business owner, Sarah Greaney, said student workers had helped to make that happen as local businesses grappled with staff shortages across the board.

"They've played a really significant role. I think you would find that many businesses have taken on more students than they would have traditionally. Certainly that's the case in our own business," Greaney said.

"We have employed more than half a dozen students this season to fill the gaps that perhaps would have otherwise been taken by other people."

But soon it will be time for those students to pick up their books and head back to their studies.

"Whilst it has absolutely solved a short-term issue, in the longer term, we're now facing another hole as we come into February and March," Greaney said.

With the students gone, she expected it would mean longer hours for both owners and existing staff.

"I think we'll be back into potentially businesses offering more limited services or having to choose 'do I open this part of my business, or that part of my business? What do I compromise?' We have seen certain businesses do that; if they've got two restaurants, they might only open one."

Greaney had been recruiting on-and-off every few weeks, but said workers were thin on the ground.

Most of the staff at Italian restaurant, La Toscana, are high school students, but university students pitch in over the holidays.

Owner Mark Holland will lose a decent chunk of his staff by the end of this month, including seven school leavers who are off to study.

"It's looking a wee bit scary; I've got four of my uni kids that are here at the moment who will be going back at the end of the month," he said.

"I've already had two that have finished uni [who] just came back to help us out over summer, and then they've got their jobs that have started in January so they've left already."

The restaurant, which has been flat-out for weeks, has cut back its open days from seven to five and currently closes a bit earlier than usual to give its staff a break.

"It's great to be busy but [I'm] not really sure how we're going to do it once these other kids have gone ... whether we have to pull back on some of our other operations," Holland said.

La Toscana, which usually offers takeaway, delivery and dine-in options, had to drop the latter service for a period between Christmas and the new year because of a lack of available senior staff.

"It is awkward and it's tricky and you hope that people understand ... why you take these menu items off, why you have to shut certain days," Holland said.

"It's just what you've got to do to get through at the moment."

Te Anau Dairy co-owner Cheng-Li Gao said it had been very helpful having student workers this summer.

"When they stay on the counter helping me, I will much easier (sic) work in the kitchen with my husband," Gao said.

"So once they back to school, I will really miss them because I'll either work between kitchen and the counter."

Businesses hoped to see more working holiday visa holders arrive soon to help ease the pressure.

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