This article was written by Roy Maurer for SHRM.
Despite restaurant employment continuing at a steady pace, the sector remains 728,000 jobs below its pre-pandemic peak, the most severely impacted among all U.S. industries.
The difficulty restaurants are having in keeping staffed up is well-documented. In addition to the myriad challenges of recruiting for over a million open roles, restaurants and bars are also churning workers even faster than they were pre-pandemic.
John Moody, co-founder and chief strategist at Restaurant365, a management platform for the industry, spoke with SHRM Online about the restaurant workforce crisis, why flexibility is so important for this sector and why the solution is as much about retention as hiring.
SHRM Online: What are the factors driving the labor crisis in the restaurant industry today?
Moody: There is no doubt the entire restaurant industry is seeing a drastic decline in candidates. The source of the labor shortage is being heavily debated, and many are pointing to wages, as the industry historically hasn’t paid its people enough, but most experts are linking it to a slew of different factors pressuring the labor market at the same time.
Many are attributing the decline of the talent pool to the extended federal unemployment benefits that were passed as part of COVID-19 economic relief. While it is true that the combined state and federal aid may be more than many establishments can afford to pay, it is not clear that unemployment benefits are the sole culprit. If it were true, the labor shortage would have resolved itself when increased benefits expired.
Another significant factor to analyze is while restaurants were furloughing or laying off workers during the pandemic, other industries were hiring. Employees who could not afford to stop working may have changed careers, moving from restaurants to places like supermarkets, e-commerce fulfillment and delivery. With competing industries heavily staffed, restaurants have a smaller applicant pool from which to choose.
Finally, the labor shortage and the pent-up consumer demand do not mix well, turning prospective employees away due to concern of diners turning their frustrations toward restaurant staff. We have all seen videos and heard stories of angry customers verbally mistreating employees because of long wait times or poor food quality due to issues beyond the staff’s control. It’s enough to make any seasoned restaurant employee timid to return to the service industry.
Yet there is a large contributing factor being overlooked—culture. Company culture is often overlooked as unimportant at restaurants, but it’s a core factor for attracting and retaining employees. Managers need to be purposeful in developing the desired culture and communicating it to staff often.
SHRM Online: Flexible scheduling is one of the ways that restaurant employers can attract workers. Why has it been so controversial for the hourly workforce?
Moody: Flexible work continues to be an important factor for many applicants, and it could be one of the reasons that restaurants are struggling to fill roles. While many companies worldwide are experimenting with this idea, some restaurant operators struggle with what the model looks like, while others are thriving.
For fast-food chains, the implementation of technology has already created work flexibility. Certain fast-food locations are now allowing drive-thru workers to work from home, a concept I’m sure we’ll see more of in the future. For contemporary restaurants, some operators allow for shift swaps or self-scheduling through their software, making it easy for employees to pick and choose their ideal workweek.
Some restaurants may be able to examine their sales and determine that a certain day of the week is not going to be profitable no matter what tactics have been tried. They have the luxury of closing entirely on that day and offering employees consistent time off. Yet others can’t afford to have a shutdown day.
Work flexibility doesn’t make sense for every restaurant and especially every employee. For example, an experienced and consistent head chef is crucial for back-of-house productivity. From timing to delivery to the quality of food, chefs are a necessary component to the success of a restaurant. More often than not, a restaurant chooses one head chef and one sous-chef, leaving little to no room for flexibility in their schedules.
Management is also a key factor in maintaining consistency throughout a restaurant. In order for restaurants to offer managers flexible scheduling, they need to hire a multitude of qualified and trusted managers to fluctuate shifts throughout the week.
From an operator’s perspective, offering flexible scheduling directly correlates with what type of restaurant you own. If it’s fast-food, you may have some freedom to offer remote work. If you have a scheduling software implemented with your contemporary restaurant model, you may be able to offer self-scheduling or shift changes. But the reality of restaurant work is that this freedom doesn’t work for every concept.
SHRM Online: What are some additional tips for attracting and retaining restaurant workers?
Moody: Our industry has been tested these last two years, and we’re continuing to rebuild the foodservice workforce amid the most severe labor shortage to date. The competition among organizations looking for workers is stiff, even with the surplus of job openings available. The pandemic has completely changed the way industries work; we’re now seeing “work from home,” four-day workweeks and flexible scheduling as the new normal. Restaurants are being put to the test in trying to compete with that, which has resulted in restauranters developing a range of innovative tactics to entice job applicants.
The most important factor to consider when attracting restaurant labor is retention. Ninety percent of restaurant managers and 80 percent of restaurant owners start out in entry-level positions. It’s crucial to think of all new hires and existing employees as potential managers and operators, making proper training a vital strategy for long-term growth and retention.
Create formal programs for those who are interested. These could include voluntary career-path informational talks, leadership workshops, and career path programs that involve skill building and learning checklists.
Mapping out specific career paths and working on the skills associated with each step is a win-win for both the employer and employee. For example, if an employee is interested in being a lead line cook, start that person on prep projects, then progressively add jobs that move the employee forward. By doing so, you’re not only offering the employee development, but you’re also building the staff member’s value to your restaurant group.
Providing mentorship opportunities for new and existing employees can be a great way to drive retention. People don’t want to feel stuck—they’re drawn to new opportunities that will help them grow not only in their career, but in every aspect of their lives. Let your employees work closely with real people at your restaurant who have advanced in their career as a way to teach and inspire your community.
Be purposeful in developing your desired culture and communicate it often. From the moment individuals step in for an interview, have a vision for where your restaurant is heading and share it with them. Let current and potential employees know they are a part of your restaurant’s future.