Faced with significant challenges in recruiting and retaining staff, foodservice operators are looking to new ways to boost employee numbers, as Tina Nielsen outlines
The Great Resignation has entered the common lexicon as a way to a describe the thousands of people who are leaving their jobs after the pandemic. “Covid-19 has forever changed the restaurant industry,” says Anne McBride, vice president of programs for the James Beard Foundation. The statement could be applied to many elements of the foodservice industry but one where the pandemic had a huge effect is on recruitment. If staffing was a challenge before, Covid-19 compounded the problem. Given time to think about what they want in life, many workers have decided that they need a different job – many of these are leaving the foodservice industry.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics in the US, 920,000 workers from the accommodation and food services sector voluntary quit their jobs in November 2021, representing almost 7% of the food and beverage workforce.
“Operators have been struggling with the results of the Covid pandemic. The businesses, offices, schools, and institutions that provided revenue closed in a very short time frame, taking away the life blood of the foodservice industry – guests and sales,” explains William Bender FCSI, founder and president of W.H. Bender & Associates. Operators were forced to close businesses and many jurisdictions instituted mandates for mask wearing, banning public businesses, meetings and indoor seating. Mandates for vaccination also created havoc for foodservice.”
Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, there were signs of trouble in foodservice sector recruitment with vacancies rising and a lack of interest from younger people in joining a sector with a reputation for offering the wrong kind of life balance. The notion of long hours and low pay persist in the portrayal of jobs in the sector.
“Yes, foodservice and restaurants have an image problem. The media perpetuates this daily. Almost every movie, television show that depicts a foodservice operation is cast in a negative view or situation when, in reality, it is an honor to serve,” says Bender.
A continuing trend
The 2022 State of the Restaurant Industry report, published by The National Restaurant Association, found that roughly 50% of restaurant operators in the full-service, quick-service, and fast-casual segments expect recruiting and retaining employees to be their top challenge in 2022.
While the US restaurant and foodservice industry added back 1.7 million jobs during 2021 for an end-of-year total of 14.5 million employees, many restaurants remain severely understaffed, and this will continue to constrain industry growth in 2022. The foodservice industry workforce is projected to grow by 400,000 jobs, for total industry employment of 14.9 million by the end of year.
And it is a trend that is set to continue. The report stated that between 2023 and 2030, the industry is projected to add an average of 200,000 jobs each year, with total staffing levels reaching 16.5 million by 2030.
For operators it means that recruiting and retaining talent is going to be more challenging and, accordingly, 75% of operators responding to the survey said they plan to allocate more resources to recruitment. These trends also mean that it is not enough for employers to continue to do what they have always done when looking to add people to their staffing roster.
“Prior to the pandemic, recruitment and retention of employees had been the industry’s top challenge for many years. As consumers have returned to on-premises dining, industry traffic has increased, creating a greater need for employees. With fewer people in the workforce and much greater competition for workers, operators are returning to pre-pandemic recruitment techniques for hiring,” says Hudson Riehle, senior vice president for the research and knowledge group at the National Restaurant Association. “These include higher hourly pay rates, additional benefits, and professional development opportunities, among others. All restaur
ant sales are local, so local market forces will impact not only the increase in needed workforce, but also the incentives needed to recruit those employees.”
Connecting on social media
The use of digital channels has long been important to companies, for promotions and presence, but more recently many foodservice companies have implemented a social media strategy for recruitment. Many point to Starbucks as an example of a foodservice employer with a smart approach to social media recruitment.
This is a way to connect with a younger generation that gets its information from the digital world and are more likely to see news about job opportunities through their Instagram or Twitter feed than any other way.
The Starbucks Instagram channel Starbucksjobs shares information about life as an employee – or partner – of the company, detailing benefits and opportunities, including access to education and pay equity. Notably it is focused on people not coffee, showing images of staff at work emphasizing the message that working for the coffee giant is fun, enjoyable and rewarding.
At the heart of the challenge to attract more staff is to make sure the offer is attractive and compelling, according to Bender. “Many will remember that over 25 years ago many brands decided strategically to adapt to changes in the marketplace and workforce by becoming the ‘employer of choice.’ This should be a continuing focus for all restaurants and brands today,” he says. “The 2+ year pandemic, a hyper-competitive market as well as digital communications make this essential to connect and communicate with team members at every level in an organization.”
In a sector that is known for low pay, some companies have decided that the best way to set themselves apart as an employer of choice is to pay more – and shout about it. Some restaurant groups have implemented a strategy of aggressive transparency. The Aqui Cal Mex restaurant group lists all salaries for all levels of staff on its website and have also posted signs in the store entrances publicising remuneration rates.
Across the board, from full-service to quick-service, foodservice companies know that attracting staff is key to surviving – and thriving. They are all looking for ways to create a more appealing proposition and finding the ways to share the message.
“It must change, there’s no question about this. We need to create a work environment and brand attitude that attracts team members and creates the work experience that will have them return daily,” says Bender.
He believes it will take an overarching strategic effort during the next decade that involves the entire foodservice industry including owners, operators, educators, manufacturers, suppliers, marketers, industry organizations to correct the situation. “Then we need to shout the message from the roof tops as well as the Metaverse – foodservice can be a lifelong career and you can have a job for life,” he concludes.