Coffee is a dead end job, but it doesn’t have to be. The boom in speciality coffee has created a crisis in employment in many parts of the world, but it has also created an opportunity that we must grasp if we want both growth and lasting success for the industry.
Recording interviews for the Coffee Jobs Podcast have brought to light a number of interesting, and interconnected themes: great employers value transferable skills. An applicant with knowledge and experience from outside of coffee can be more valuable than one who has had a more linear coffee career to date. Employers value the diversity of experience because it adds to their business, and often reveals hidden opportunities for improvement or growth.
The frustrating nature of this industry is that we are very interested in increasing someone’s skill and knowledge, but the skills we are teaching are not transferrable. Making coffee is often challenging, and the customer experience demands skilled people making coffee. However, this is really the only skill I see people being taught and it has very little use outside of the coffee industry. Making great coffee is a difficult skill to transfer, and this is a problem.
A lasting career in coffee is a difficult and unlikely thing. For every seven to ten barista positions, there is perhaps one position to move forward into as management. The funnel narrows very sharply, not only in the cafe but from the cafe to the roasting company, or from the roasting company to the green coffee company.
Most people hired into a position as a barista will leave the coffee industry. This is not a damning statement, this isn’t failure. This is just the nature of the opportunities and roles within the coffee industry in consuming countries. What I’ve learned from my guests on the podcast is that this isn’t a problem, this is an opportunity that should be embraced.
There are skills that can be taught to a barista that are transferrable. We often say there is more to being a barista than just making coffee, and this is true. However, we just don’t spend resources on developing these skills. Many coffee businesses lack the time, money or sometimes the ability to teach those skills. I believe that this is something we need to change.
What kind of skills? The most obvious ones that spring to mind are things like financial literacy, sales, customer service, empathy and understand resource allocation. Most cafe owners bear the burden of this work alone, especially aspects like P&L. Taking this single aspect, I believe sharing this information as well as the workload involved in monitoring and controlling it, would create a more engaged team as well as a more conscientious one. It would be important to be thoughtful about teaching, sharing and discussing the impact of actions in the cafe on operations. It would be necessary to keep everyone connected and engaged, even if ultimate responsibility for decisions would like with the owner. Anyone moving on from that business would have a valuable understanding of real world costings, wastage, staff cost and financial modelling. This is hugely valuable in their future careers, and independent of whatever career path they choose.
This is a single, basic example. I’m not here to argue that this is exactly what we ought to be training. I’m here to argue that we need to teach baristas about a lot more than coffee. If working for a year or two in speciality coffee becomes a genuine opportunity for personal development, rather than entry into a professional lottery.
Let’s face a difficult truth: In much of the world, there are very definite limits on what you can earn as a barista. Independent cafes aren’t making their owners wealthy, and most pay as much as they can to get the staff they need. Despite strong competition amongst cafes for staff, they simply aren’t able to just pay more to get what they want. I believe that a cafe that offered a living wage and a strong development program that broaden, rather than narrow, future opportunities would not struggle to find good people.
To do this, to change the way the industry views the potential of a barista. We need to look at building education programs that are about more than where coffee is from, how it is grown, and how to extract it. I am not saying these things don’t matter, they are fundamental to what we do. We just have to value other skills too.
We would need help to do this. It has taken speciality coffee a long time to develop the educational programs that we currently have, despite the subject matter being where our expertise lies. This kind of work is outside the industry’s scope and so we’ll need to engage with others industries and experts. None of this will happen unless there is demand. I want to start a discussion because I believe that this is where a potential future lies for our sustainability. It will require a change in mindset, but I believe certain businesses are already thinking this way and are reaping the benefits from it.
This is a problem that I want to work on, that I’m willing to put some resources into. I want to help create programs and practices to develop transferrable skills in coffee. However, this isn’t where my expertise lies and I need help. If you know anyone I should be speaking to then please get in touch. Drop me a line through the blog, or via twitter.