Scaling Job Canyon
HIRING ON THE OTHER SIDE OF COVID
Restaurants are back in force this summer, with vaccines rolling out, restrictions lifting, and the desire for family and friend gatherings climbing to new heights. It’s not a walk in the park for operators, though. They face a new challenge in the form of a steep, often unfulfilled demand for new hires. Operators need to overcome this challenge quickly if they want to benefit from post-pandemic restaurant excitement, and get back to pre-pandemic levels of success. To fully emerge from the canyon of job loss and business contraction that was COVID, they have to understand what’s getting in the way of hiring, and adjust their tactics to meet these obstacles.
The Canyon Wall
The pandemic left restaurants in a low spot, with a long and difficult climb to get out. Looking at Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers, food service employment dropped by nearly half in the first months of the pandemic, bottoming out at 6.3 million jobs in April 2020. We’ve bounced back since then, with May 2021 showing 10.8 million jobs in the industry — a strong recovery, but still 1.5 million jobs shy of the 12.3 million employed in February 2020. Operators are working hard to close this gap. According to analysis from the food service research group Technomic, there were 1.3 million job openings in the hotel and restaurant sector (of which restaurants make up a large share) this May. This record high, which followed up records set in March and April, shows both the need for new hires and the struggle to find them. Qualitative research supports this picture: a May survey from Restaurant Business shows that 90% of restaurant employers feel hiring is harder now than it was pre-COVID.
What’s In the Way
Several obstacles keep restaurants in job canyon. Child and home care services have their own staff shortages, which cascade into the restaurant hiring situation when potential workers can’t find help caring for young, disabled, sick, or elderly people in their lives. Vaccines not yet being approved for young kids may also make parents hesitant to turn them over to outside child care, even when available. Federal aid for state unemployment insurance could be another factor, bringing money from unemployment to a similar level as the paycheck from some restaurant jobs. There’s also the reputation (deserved or not) of the industry itself, as a place with low pay, odd hours, a lack of benefits, and a stressful environment. Remember that almost half the restaurant workforce lost their jobs at the beginning of the pandemic, and were kept from picking up a new restaurant job by the total nature of the crisis. This gave them many months to reflect on their situation, retrain, and look for other kinds of work. If they found something more satisfying, they might not come back — without the right incentives.
Getting Over It
The obstacles above demand smart, specific responses. Cater to people with care responsibilities in the day or evening by advertising jobs that fit neatly into day or evening hours, rather than overlapping with both. Not all care schedules will match these hours exactly, so also try to keep yourself open to small variations — and advertise that you’re flexible in your job posting. In addition, consider offering financial support to pay for care, or upping the availability of family and medical leave. This may be equivalent to offering higher pay on your end, but be more eye-catching for employees with those specific needs. Consider offering higher pay as well, if you can, as a way to draw in those choosing unemployment insurance or other careers over restaurant work. For career changers, supplement pay increases with other efforts to make restaurant work less stressful, like consistent schedules and benefits. Beyond beefing up what you’re offering employees, you’ll also want to market your job harder and smarter. One way to overcome hiring barriers is just to get yourself in front of more applicants — especially ones that have traditionally filled out large parts of the restaurant workforce.
The College Try
Support your specific responses with a general boost to your hiring pool, by courting college students. An October 2020 survey from the Bureau of Labor Statistics showed 46.3% of college students participating in the labor force — a large chunk of a large population that’s especially likely to be interested in seasonal, part time, and entry level work. Young people are a traditional mainstay of restaurant employment, but according to the same survey, labor force participation in the high school part of that crowd is low these days (only 22.8%), and has been dropping for years. If you have to choose one, it’s better to focus your job opening ads on colleges. Below are some of the largest colleges in or near North Central Florida, along with their cities and approximate enrollment, based on data from the U.S. News & World Report. This is just the tip of the employment iceberg — remember to check your area for smaller schools, too.
Making It Work for Students
To get the most from your hiring, tailor job openings meant for college students to fit their specific needs — which can be quite different from the needs of a general job seeker. College students have to manage courses as well as your job — so they may prefer part-time to full-time work, despite the lower pay. They’re also less likely to need some benefits that come with full-time work, like health insurance, as long as they’re covered by a parent’s plan. Then there’s the seasonal factor. During the summer, otherwise overwhelmed students may be home, free, and looking for work. At the start of fall term, this group dries up, while potentially job-seeking students from out of state, or from rural Florida areas less connected to food service, pour in. If you’re hiring college students in the summer, make it clear that the start of fall term is a breakpoint, where they can come to you to adjust hours, or even part ways, without a fuss. For school-year hiring, make sure your college ad campaign hits campus at the same time students do. Of course, to manage both of these issues, you need to know when fall term starts! That’s August 23rd for all of the colleges mentioned above, except for St. Petersburg College, which starts on August 16th.
Restaurant operation has been hard during the pandemic. Now business is coming back out of that ravine, but hiring barriers stand in the way of a smooth recovery. We hope we’ve given you some tools to get past these last-minute obstacles. If you need ingredients while you’re at it, you know where to find us — contact your Florida Food Service rep, anytime.