May 9, 2022

Career progression for specialty coffee baristas


For many baristas, a passion for high-quality coffee is one of the main reasons they work in the specialty coffee industry. But alongside this enthusiasm, baristas must also develop a broad range of technical skills, as well as knowing how to provide excellent customer service, if they are to be successful.

In many cases, honing these skills gives baristas the foundation they need to advance in their careers, should they have the desire to.

However, moving from a barista position to managing a coffee shop, or even to another role in the coffee industry, can be difficult for many.

So, what are the options for baristas looking to move forward in their coffee careers? To find out, I spoke to three coffee professionals. Read on to find out what they told me.

You may also like our article on what a head barista does.

female barista working

Investing in baristas

For any barista that is serious about career progression, professional development is understandably important.

For coffee shop owners, investment in staff is one of many key factors for long-term growth – especially in an industry with high staff turnover rates. In the UK alone, the hospitality industry has an annual turnover rate of 30%, which has been exacerbated by issues such as Brexit and Covid-19.

Moreover, training can demonstrate to baristas that employers are invested in their career development. Without sufficient training, baristas may not be able to advance in their careers at all.

Izzy Austen is the Head of Development & Marketing for Baristas On Tap. The company connects freelance baristas with a number of coffee shops in the UK, US, and EU.

“It’s important that baristas are given the opportunities to grow into other roles if they so wish,” she says. “Many baristas leave their positions simply because their cost of living is too high for the low wages they earn.”

In some major cities, the cost of living can sometimes be too high for a standard barista salary. For example, Numbeo estimates that the average cost of living in London per month is around £882 (US $1,150) before taking housing into consideration.

With the London Living Wage currently set at £11.05 (US $14.40), this averages out to a pre-tax monthly income of around £1,770 (US $2,306) for most baristas – leaving them with little disposable income after the previously mentioned costs, plus housing.

“We need baristas to remain in the coffee industry, otherwise we won’t be able to staff coffee shops, which is something we have already started to see,” Izzy tells me. 

The negative effects of the pandemic have also exacerbated the hospitality industry’s staff issues. Lockdowns and stay-at-home measures have not only reduced footfall in coffee shops, but have also forced staff who test positive for Covid-19 to remain at home. This can put further financial strain on baristas, as well as more pressure on the reduced workforce in coffee shops.

muslim female barista

Opportunities for growth

Izzy believes that there are a number of skills baristas can hone which set them up well for career development.

“A barista role is so multi-faceted,” she says. “The experience gained is crucial to other positions within the specialty coffee industry.”

One of the ways in which baristas are able to branch out into other roles is through coffee competitions. Training for competitions, notably national coffee championships, help baristas to develop their skills and establish themselves in the specialty coffee industry.

James Wise is the 2017 Coffee Masters Champion. “Competing is one of the best ways to train yourself in making coffee,” he says. “Winning will, of course, bring a spotlight along with it.”

However, he adds that long-term, sustainable career development for baristas should not solely be based on taking part in competitions.

“Winning a coffee-making competition doesn’t make you management material; it makes you good at making coffee,” James explains. “A competition shouldn’t just be a ticket to the top.”

As well as honing their coffee-making skills, baristas also need to develop an understanding of how coffee shops operate as businesses. This means building on more practical skills, such as staff training, stock management, and menu development.

“Business owners and management want to make money; it’s a necessity,” James says. “As a prospective leader, you need to help the business to make more money.

“If you are able to action each task you perform by asking yourself how it could be done more efficiently or to a higher standard, then more recognition from employers will follow.”

baristas serving a customer

How can baristas develop their management skills?

Ryan Garrick is the Head of Coffee for WatchHouse in London. He explains how baristas must have an “awareness of the entire environment around them” in order to understand the scope of their own role within the coffee shop.

“It’s essential that we have clear roles in the coffee shop environment, with baristas, runners, and chefs working together,” he says. “When appropriate, baristas should be ready to support their team in order to improve both the experience of their colleagues and the customers.” 

Ultimately, by doing this, baristas can gradually pick up skills necessary for managerial roles. While baristas must be aware of their own workflow to improve efficiency, management positions require a more broader understanding of team operations.

“Understanding bar workflow when the shop is busy compared to when it’s quiet is something that so many people can overlook, but it’s key to running an efficient business,” Izzy tells me. 

“Managing people is crucial, as well as empathising and listening to the people in your team.”

Tools such as personal development plans can help baristas to identify their individual goals for career development, as well as highlighting the areas where they may need to improve.

Ryan believes that coffee shop owners ultimately need to provide these tools and assist in implementing them.

“We need to develop clear pathways, listen to team members, and ensure that we provide the tools to facilitate the development that they want.”

This is especially important for groups who are often underrepresented in the coffee industry, as they generally face more barriers to career development than others.

Clear, constructive communication between baristas and their employers – as well providing a space for baristas to vocalise any concerns – are essential to improving diversity and inclusivity in the coffee sector.

cappuccino with latte art

Taking the initiative 

As the specialty coffee industry has grown over the past few decades, there has been an ever-growing number of opportunities for baristas to advance their careers. And while training, investment, equal opportunities, and hard work are all crucial to successful career development, taking the initiative is also important.

To start, Izzy explains how baristas can use social media to connect and network with other coffee professionals. 

“Lockdowns saw baristas take more control of their online presence, and as a result, created more roles involving behind-the-bar social media content.”

In the coffee industry, coffee influencers are becoming increasingly popular, including baristas and competition winners. By 2022, it’s estimated that the influencer marketing industry will be worth around US $15 billion – meaning it’s a lucrative job market for those who can successfully navigate it.

As a result of Covid-19, consumers began brewing more coffee at home, which created a new market for coffee education. Through social media platforms like TikTok and Instagram, baristas have been able to disseminate their coffee knowledge and establish themselves further in the coffee industry.

“Other options for baristas such as freelancing, jobs with additional perks, and four-day working weeks have become popular as a result of the pandemic,” Izzy adds.

Ultimately, career progression of any form is down to what the barista wants for themselves in the long term.

“We need to remember that everyone has individual ambitions,” Ryan explains. “Perhaps a barista is interested in moving into roasting, or perhaps they want to open their own coffee shop and want to learn more about café management.”

There’s no right or wrong way for a barista to progress in their career, and there are a number of aspects to consider when it comes to developing as a coffee professional. 

As long as they are provided with the appropriate tools, receive adequate support, and have the same opportunities as others, career development in the coffee industry is more than possible.

making filter coffee

Each barista will have their own ambitions with working in a coffee shop, particularly with regards to which direction they want to take in their careers. Whether it’s a head barista or training role, or switching to roasting or green buying, there are certainly opportunities for career development in the wider industry. 

But to achieve these, it’s imperative that baristas are incentivised to move forward and progress. This can only be achieved when coffee shop owners invest in their staff and give them the space and resources to grow.

Enjoyed this? Then read our article on looking out for barista wellbeing after Covid-19.

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