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Why restaurant jobs can lead to corporate success for Gen Z

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Jenny Day
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This article was written by Employee Benefit News and features perspective from Leon Graves, senior solutions manager at Restaurant365.

For many of today’s corporate professionals, waiting tables or washing dishes was their first introduction to the workforce. And while they may no longer brag about those experiences on their resumes, the soft skills learned in those spaces are valuable currency in a corporate environment — and they could be exactly what the newer generation is lacking.  

As a result of the pandemic’s shutdowns and isolation, members of Gen Z missed out on typical opportunities to learn how to navigate real-world situations and interactions. Now, as they’re preparing to enter the workforce, they’re at a competitive deficit. 

“The pandemic really accelerated a shift toward digital communication skills,” says Laura Mills, head of early career insights at virtual workplace experience provider Forage. ” is incredibly adept at shorthand on their phones, social media platforms and gaming platforms communications, but those communication styles don’t lift and shift to a multi-generational workforce very well.” 

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Mills has worked in early career development for over a decade, and when she’s recruiting, she says she always favors a resume with significant restaurant or retail experience over one with a better GPA. When it comes to filling entry-level positions, recruiters or employers understand that applicants will inevitably lack some of the necessary hard skills for specific positions, Mills explains. But she makes it a priority to note what soft skills an applicant may have that will make up for the gap in experience. Things like time and stress management and healthy conflict resolution are not competencies limited to restaurant work, but they are in those spaces for young people.

“The ability to work well with others — both with folks that are easy to get along with, as well as coworkers that are not easy to get along with — are the kind of skills that I want you to bring because those are situations you’re going to continue to encounter in the workforce,” she says. “When you work in restaurant service, you’ve got to be able to handle multiple priorities, all competing at different rates.” 

This potential Gen Z skills gap comes at a time when restaurants are struggling to recover from the pandemic, too: According to a 2022 survey from the National Restaurant Association, 65% of restaurant operators said they don’t have enough employees to support existing demand. But with over a third of high school students likely to pick up jobs in the summer of 2023, according to workplace insights platform Zippia, restaurants have a unique opportunity to attract young workers with the promise of skills building. 

Restaurants have historically been a hard sell to the workforce, says Leon Graves, senior solutions manager at Restaurant365, a restaurant management company. That’s partly because of the labor-intensive work, but also because of a challenging and elusive professional future.

“The people that are still working in the restaurant industry past the age 30 are usually professionals that are committed to the industry — crotchety dishwashers and our lifelong bartenders who make a decent living at the neighborhood dive bar,” Graves says. “But that’s a very small number of people, and that is not going to staff your restaurant. So we have a responsibility to learn how to speak to Gen Z and in ways that resonate with them.”

As the gig economy has taken off, luring service workers toward jobs as delivery or rideshare drivers, the restaurant industry has failed to promise the same kind of flexibility and freedom as those budding industries, and are often not as technologically adept as gig platforms that streamline processes like applications and scheduling. But as someone who successfully found a way to make a corporate career out of the restaurant industry, Graves says the gig economy is driving young people towards jobs that provide immediate gratification, without offering them transferable skills or marketability outside their trade. 

What’s left is to find a way to create opportunities that match young employees’ development needs with the restaurant industry’s recruiting and staffing challenges. That’s going to take some heavy lifting from restaurant owners, Graves says, to ensure that they’re leveraging things like technology and benefits to make job opportunities more attractive. 

“In my mind, restaurants are the best business education that exists,” he says. “The managers that I developed went on to do different things outside the restaurant industry, but used the organizational skills and the people management skills I taught them. And I’m still in contact with them a decade later because they learned those foundational skills here.”