When I was a teen in the 70's, restaurant jobs were highly sought after by young people. Restaurants were a fun place to be where you could meet new friends and work nights around a school schedule. Suburban middle class kids were a growing labor pool in that era and offered foodservice operators a steady stream of generally educated, reliable workers. Many of those kids (including me) moved up the ranks into restaurant management.
Today's young suburbanites do not want foodservice jobs. Many consider those jobs hard, dirty and not the place to meet peers. Today's young people, if they even want to work, prefer to be at the mall or game stores or coffee shops. High school graduates not going on to college seek employment in healthcare, high tech, automotive and other technically skilled jobs.
The restaurant industry is failing to attract traditional entry-level job seekers and must instead rely on lesser skilled workers and recent immigrants to the country. Many believe we have lost the proud heritage and culture of foodservice and that our industry is no longer an industry of choice, rather it represents the jobs that are left.
How do we make foodservice an industry of choice again?
The good news is that the labor challenge has opened great opportunities for minorities and recent immigrants. Motivated hard working people will go further in foodservice than in other industries. This is a selling point.
In order to survive the labor crunch there must be forward-looking employers that consider employees assets and offer competitive salaries and benefits. Better employees are going to want meaningful work with opportunities for continuous learning and advancement.
Look at the example Starbucks set with offering healthcare for employees – long before this became a political issue. As a result, Starbucks has attracted better-educated, motivated employees. In other words, they used competition to secure better quality workers.
If you are reading this, like me, you love the foodservice industry. The industry must improve the overall offer to prospective employees; pay, benefits, working conditions and schedules in order to attract quality workers. In my experience, paying more for quality labor does NOT cost more. Better quality workers drive down labor cost by reducing training and turnover costs as well as improving productivity.
For many of us, we are near the top of the food chain in some type of a management role. We simply cannot do our jobs without entry level or junior level team members. It's time to stop thinking 26 percent labor cost and start thinking "better pay for better workers." It is the only way to continue to satisfy our guests. Let us strive to make the foodservice industry an industry of choice again.
Ed Zimmerman is a pizza industry veteran and President of The Food Connector. His almost four decades of foodservice experience includes food manufacturing and distribution leadership, food industry technology, marketing services and restaurant and grocery operations management.