Selkirk College’s Professional Cook Program a Recipe for Employment

Not many schools can promise a student will have a job at the end of their studies. This year, Selkirk College’s cooking program is offering its grads their choice of them.

“Right now we have 16 students and more than 40 jobs to fill,” says Simon Parr, Instructional Assistant for Professional Cook (Level One) at the Tenth Street Campus in Nelson.

Parr says students in the recently finished term are being courted with “three or four” job offers each, with many employers recruiting on site during the school year.

“It’s great, students can pick their own jobs, decide the path they want to take, what experience they want,” he says.

It’s heady stuff to have opportunity like that for your students. Parr, who has taught at Selkirk College for 10 years, has seen this cycle before.

The Right Place and the Right Time

Parr says one of the reasons for the job demand in the hospitality industry is the low Canadian dollar, which is both bringing foreign tourists to British Columbia and keeping Canadian travelers at home. The resulting boom in the industry has resorts and restaurants struggling to attract skilled staff.

Industry officials agree it’s a great time to be looking for work in tourism.

“As economies shift up and down, tourism often benefits in both ways,” says Dennis Green, the Director of Industry Workforce Development for go2HR, an organization that helps develop the hospitality industry in B.C. “When there is an increase in economic activity, there is an increase in business travel. And in regions where there is a major change, such as a slowdown in natural resources, often communities look to tourism as a way to diversify the economy.”

Because of this, Green says there are always lots of jobs in the sector, part-time or seasonal, as well as full-time jobs that can lead to long careers.

“We are a growth industry, there are guaranteed jobs. There are not many areas like that now,” adds Parr. “It’s a win-win for us. There are huge numbers of people coming back to B.C., to our region, looking for work and considering cooking school for re-training. Then when they get here, we get strong demand from employers for cooks. So it’s a bit of a perfect storm for cooking.”

Students in Selkirk College’s cooking program enroll in the BC Apprentice Cook program and may take the Cook 1 (28 weeks) and Cook 2 (14 weeks) qualifications leading toward the Interprovincial ‘Red Seal’ cook certification (that course is offered when demand warrants). Unlike many programs, Selkirk College offers students at all levels practical experience, either working in a cafeteria or preparing gourmet meals in the college’s training dining room or at gala events. They learn by working in real-world conditions, under pressure and feeding real customers.

“This course is good for anyone who wants to be a chef,” says Daphne Bingley, who just completed her first year in the program. “In September we had students who did not know how to boil pasta. This course treats everyone as if they want to become chef, but if you don’t put in the work you won’t take it out.”

Bingley’s already landed a plum summer job, working in one of B.C.’s most prestigious restaurants. But she’s being picky about her long-term goals.

“I’m not promising anyone my time, I want to travel around and learn about the culinary industry,” she says. “When I can learn enough to be a decent chef or sous-chef I will return to one of the places I enjoyed and try to make a life there.”

Demand is High for Trained Cooks

The Selkirk College Professional Cook Training Program has seen several recruiters come through the kitchens at the Tenth Street Campus and some, like Bingley, have been hired on the spot.

“We don’t have to go shopping for jobs for our students, employers are coming to us,” says Bob Falle, who’s overseen the cooking program for 20 years. “We find employers that come to us are quite serious about working with our students and understanding what their goals are.”

George Salivaras is one of those employers. A graduate of Selkirk College’s cooking program himself (in 2002), he has made the trek from his restaurant in Castlegar, The Wandering Greek Oven, to meet with the second-year students.

“It’s fun for me to talk to the students, I find it enjoyable to share the joy I have cooking,” he says.

Salivaras has hired four students from Selkirk College, two this year.

“It’s good for me to have staff who know how to do things, that know the basics” he says. “I don’t have to explain everything.”

Completing Training Opens Up Doors

The local restaurant trade is only the start of opportunities, notes Falle.

“Regionally we are fortunate for having high-end seasonal work opportunities for trained cooks,” he says. “There are winter heli- or sno-cat skiing, golf resorts, luxury hotels, it goes on. There is an endless demand for cooks in this province.”

And these students aren’t being prepared for low-wage, dead-end jobs either. Back at the college kitchen, where he’s overseeing the lunch prep, Simon Parr says a talented young chef with ambition can find themselves anywhere in the world.“It’s exciting, you can travel around, work on cruise ships, or five-star resorts anywhere in the world,” he says. “Those that work hard, in a couple of years can be a sous-chef or in an executive chef position. And that’s when the salaries really kick in. A pastry chef can make $85,000 a year.”

But it’s not just money that’s important. Parr says the real reward is doing what you want in life.

“I love it, I’ve been doing it 20 years,” says Parr. “I used to be an oil field worker, I made killer money, but I was bored out of my mind. I decided to follow my passion and I’ve never turned back from it.”