Home > Jobs You Can't Afford, Stories > Jobs You Can’t Afford – Chef

Jobs You Can’t Afford – Chef

One of my chief reasons for starting this blog was to highlight how much our career choices are affected by student loan debt.  As The Nation once suggested, student loans have everything to do with social control, but it doesn’t always work out for the betterment of society:

How many young people turn away from low-paying but vital professions because they can’t earn enough to pay back their loans? How many potential social workers, pro bono lawyers, journalists, environmentalists, teachers, artists, secondary medical professionals and community workers are we losing?

Thus, I have decided to begin a new series – Jobs You Can’t Afford.  Here I will tell the stories, culled both from my own interviews and other sources, of the many career options that are closed to people with large amounts of student loans.  I will tell both the stories of people who have had to give up dreams and the stories of people who wouldn’t – and suffered as a result.

For my first installment, I want to talk about chefs.  In 2007, the New York Times ran a great story on the high cost vs. the low return of going to culinary school.  From the article:

But Mr. Park wanted to be a chef. So like tens of thousands of other young people who grew up in the age of kitchen celebrities like Bobby Flay and Emeril Lagasse, he enrolled in culinary school.

Two years after graduation, all the “Bam!” has been drained from the dream. Mr. Park makes $10.50 an hour at a bistro in Austin best known for its French fries, trying to pay down his student loans. While he dodges phone calls from the bank, his mother helps him make his $705 monthly payments, almost twice his weekly take-home pay.

The article noted that, though culinary school is typically only two years, because of the tools needed – fully stocked kitchens with fine foods and wines – costs can run as high as $48,000. Students typically cannot borrow that level of money from federal programs and are forced to take out private loans with higher interest rates.  On top of that, the article reported, many students who go to culinary school come from working class families and thus can’t afford to pay for their educations out-of-pocket. 

It might be worth it if future chefs could make enough to pay back those loans.  But according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, the median wage for chefs is just $34,370 per year.  Furthermore, the competition is getting more fierce.  From the Times article:

Tim Ryan, the president of the Culinary Institute of America, estimates that 62,000 students are in culinary schools, 35 percent more than five years ago.

The conclusion is clear:  Unless you can afford to pay at least part of the cost of your education up front, it isn’t worth it for you to go to culinary school.  So for all of my working-class readers out there, I hereby cross off the first profession on your list of possibilities – say goodbye to being a chef.

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