If money is tight, you’ve lost your job or fancy a career change, or you want to wow friends and family with your’ flair pouring’ skills at a forthcoming birthday party, bartending can seem like an attractive and practical option to rake in a little extra cash or experience.
The difficulty lies in that bartending is not as easy as it seems. Do you know what a snifter is? the difference between a Manhattan and an Old Fashioned, what to do with syrup, or even how to navigate the complicated touchscreen nightmare of a computerized Point-of-Sale (POS) system?
An increasing amount of bartending schools have appeared in Canada and the U.S. in recent years, all promising to provide wannabe barkeeps with the knowledge and skills required to get them impressing at family get-togethers or raking in the cash while serving thirsty customers.
The myriad courses on offer range from two-hour evening workshops where you can learn how to match specific wines with certain plates of food to forty-hours-plus mega-courses stretching over five weeks where students learn everything from speed pouring shots and prepping perfect cocktails to dealing with drunks who are adamant – after ten shots of bourbon – they are acceptable to drive home.
Most of these schools provide job placement assistance and guarantee that you will be working within graduation days. But is this true? And, more importantly, is ‘Bartending School Certification’ even necessary to obtain that must-have job in the hottest club in town, or any bar?
Finding a Job
Even though what the schools offer looks attractive, it must be borne in mind that, when hiring, many establishments will always look for experience over a bartending certificate from a school they’ve never heard of. Also, something to remember is that licensing certification requirements – such as TIPS (a skills-based training program designed to prevent intoxication, underage drinking, and drunk driving) or ServSafe/SmartServe/ServeRight – vary from province or state and can often be mandatory if you want to work with or around alcohol. Some schools provide this training as a standalone course or as part of their ‘bartending certification’ courses. Still, again this is no guarantee of getting a job – you can have all the state certifications in the world, and a nightclub might still choose somebody with fifteen years’ bar experience under her belt.
Many larger bars, clubs and restaurants – where trade is bustling and demands on staff are extremely high – will only consider applicants with vast experience. Still, they admit that a good experience (no matter how small) plus a diploma or certificate can sometimes get a prospective bartender’s foot in the door. Management at high-volume establishments is that their workers need to possess a combination of knowledge, professionalism and the skills to pour well and pour fast – a perfect mixture of abilities that only comes with many years working behind the wood.
Smaller bars with less clientele may be more willing to take a risk on a newbie who has recently graduated from a bartending school because the demands are less intense – but there is often the proviso that the applicant should be an alumnus of one of the forty-hour (or longer) programs as this is the minimum length required for any course to be certified by a state’s board of education or vocational/post-secondary education. This state certification is more likely to make an owner or manager sit up and take notice, and in the increasingly competitive world of bartending, this can only be a good thing.
Starting as a Barback
But where do you acquire that all-important experience when nobody seems willing to let you gain it? The answer may be found in the fact that most places promote from within – so get on the staff as a waiter, dishwasher or bar-back. Bar-backs, in particular, are a bar’s secret weapon, and it is a multitasking role where you can watch and learn from the bartender, often at close quarters.
If you’re looking at how to move from bareback to bartender, see this article.
Meanwhile, you’ll be swapping kegs, washing glasses, fetching ice and doing a hundred other things – other than creating and pouring drinks – which means you are gaining experience of a working bar all the time. You’re getting to know the other staff, and the customers, and you’re learning the ropes and how a bartender operates. Before long, you will be ready to step into the bartender’s shoes when he or she has a night off, and before long, you will be working the bar yourself as a fully-fledged barkeep.
For those still keen on just the bartending school route and not “working your way” up from within, even the CEOs of established training schools warn against attending any program which is less than forty hours in length and to avoid like the plague any company which ‘guarantees employment’ after the course, arguing that times are too harsh for just anyone to walk into a bad job. If a program sounds too good to be true, then it probably is.
However, there are shorter courses, such as New York’s National Association of Bartenders’ Boot Camp, which is twelve hours in length and not recognized by any state education authority. Its owners argue that their course is faster, cheaper and teaches the basics – quick pouring, mixing drinks and keeping customers happy – which is often all a bar owner or manager will want a fledgling bartender to know.
The general consensus amongst the more reputable schools is that while one of their diplomas or certificates will help in some cases, if a bar is to take on an inexperienced employee, it will be the result of the first impression they give and their availability, pointing out that if you don’t have the personality for the job they are not going to hire you, no matter what your qualifications.
The upside of this is that, unlike for some other jobs or vocations, bartender training programs are relatively short and inexpensive, so it does not hurt to attend a school and become certified – the more strings to your bow, the better.
Making sure you have the right personality and skills and applying for an establishment that fits them is usually the best advice given to anybody looking to work in the hospitality industry. A rowdy, busy bar needs somebody who is equipped to deal with the clientele professionally; similarly, a high-end restaurant won’t want someone incapable of perfect tableside etiquette and service.
The overall feeling from people within the industry is that, with the economic problems many face, more and more are turning to bar work to keep themselves afloat.
Competition is fierce, and bar job opportunities are becoming increasingly rare due to more people vying for places. Bartending school certification is not seen as a magic bullet, but if it includes important training on POS systems and TIPS/ServSafe, it may just provide that little something that puts you ahead of the pack when it comes to your first bartending job.