NEW ORLEANS - Leaders in the local restaurant industry say there are not enough skilled workers to keep up with the growing demand, and workers in the industry say stagnant wages are to blame.

Blair Kolb knows his way around the kitchen, but for the first time in 31 years he is trying something new.

'It's hard,' says Blair Kolb, a former pastry chef at an Emeril's restaurant. 'It was really a struggle because I know I had a lot of good skills and to give that up and walk away from that was really difficult.'

The successful pastry chef walked away from the demands of his fast-paced job at Emeril's restaurant to take on an entirely new career as a pipe bender.

'Doing the numbers, I realized that I would be making the same annual salary for 40 percent less time spent at work,' says Kolb.

It is a hefty blow to an industry that says it is hurting for more skilled and experienced workers.

Last month, Haley Bittermann, the Corporate Executive Chef and Director of Operations for the Ralph Brennan Restaurant Group, talked about how difficult it has been to hire staff for the original Brennan's restaurant currently under renovation on Royal Street.

'It's just finding good people,' said Bittermann. 'It's almost like there's just not enough experienced restaurant staff in city to go around.'

In fact, before his career change Kolb interviewed for the job, but in the end he says he turned it down because of the pay.

'It was disappointing because nothing had fit me so well, my skill set and what they need was like hand in glove,' says Kolb.

Kolb says he is just proof it is not demand, but rather the substandard wages that has created a shortage of skilled workers.

'The people are there, they're willing to work, but they need to make a decent wage,' says Kolb. 'They need to make a wage that is worth their time.'

However, Dr. Silas Lee, a sociologist and pollster, says the issue is much more complex than that.

'Quite often, workers in that industry are vulnerable to forces beyond their control - the economic climate, the demand for their services,' says Lee.

He says employees are looking for stable employment and while higher wages may help, he says the restaurant industry has changed. Competition is now driving the need for a more skilled, more educated workforce.

According to data from the Louisiana Workforce Commission, in 2012 pay for an entry level position was just shy of $17,000 annually and, on average, someone with experience made just over $22,500 a year.

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