A Bad Rap
Working in food service does not have a glamorous reputation. Being maître d’ at a high-end eatery might come with more prestige than an entry-level position at a quick service restaurant, but certain fundamentals remain true throughout the industry—margins are low, pressure is high and tenures are short.
The annual employee turnover rate for the restaurant industry consistently runs 50% above the private sector as a whole—74.9% compared to 48.9%, according to the National Restaurant Association’s 2018 figures. How to explain this level of turnover?
A Young Person’s Game
It’s mostly down to demographics—30% of restaurant employees are seasonal, 28% are enrolled in school and many—1.7 million— are teenagers, often in their first ever job. Relatively high turnover is only to be expected—summers end, classes begin and employees move on.
Demographics are changing—teenagers used to outnumber older workers (55+) by a ratio of 3 to 1. That’s dropped to 2 to 1, and is trending lower, say the Bureau of Labor Statistics. However, a job in a restaurant or quick service establishment is still often seen a short term opportunity, rather than something for the long term.
Is this fair? Are there under-appreciated benefits of working in the food service industry? And—crucially—how can restaurants improve their employee experience?
1. Emphasize the Experience
Even if the chances are that a job in the food service won’t be for life, it doesn’t mean that the experience isn’t valuable. In fact, an entry-level restaurant position is a rite of passage for many, as the first time they come face to face with the realities of the working world. Many business people cite early jobs in the industry as pivotal to their later success—including Jeff Bezos, now the world’s richest man, who began working at McDonalds aged just 16.
The transferable skills that can be gained are endless—the ability to work under pressure, to contribute as part of a fast-paced team and to deal patiently with customers. Importantly, for entry-level positions generally no qualifications—aside from the capacity to work hard—are required.
Consistent industry growth—along with high staff turnover—means that there is no shortage of open positions, which offers opportunities for progress to those who might face discrimination in other industries. Indeed, restaurants have more minority managers than in any other industry (National Restaurant Association). This diversity is yet another aspect of working in the food service that should be celebrated.
2. Focus on Learning
Any time spent working in a restaurant can provide valuable—and perhaps unexpected—experiences. (Jeff Bezos told Wired magazine how he became fascinated by McDonald’s early attempts to automate kitchen processes.) When it comes to learning, though, there’s something more valuable that restaurants can offer employees—skills.
All restaurants are treasure troves of built up expertise—about organizational efficiency, customer relations and—unsurprisingly—food. Knowledge and skills are always in the process of being passed on—that’s how restaurants keep functioning despite such high turnover. Some of these skills are transferable, others are specific to food service. The thing is, the skills that allow employees to forge a successful career working in food service could be the most valuable of all.
We’re talking about an industry with 3.6% growth year-on-year, where sales are forecast to exceed $863 billion in 2019. Let us do the math for you. If growth stays steady, this will be a trillion dollar industry within five years. For anyone wanting a piece of that pie, industry know-how is a vital asset.
That’s why it’s essential that restaurants encourage skill sharing, creating a knowledge chain all the way from industry veterans to entry-level beginners. It doesn’t need to be formalized—but it needs to be supported at all organizational levels. Learning and development should be at the forefront when selling the idea of working in a restaurant. If it is, attracting—and retaining—staff will get a whole lot easier.
3. Think Long Term
We’ve already talked about turnover rates. Three out of four restaurant staff won’t last the year. The problem is, when managers don’t expect staff to be around very long—it can be easy to treat them accordingly. Imagine this vicious cycle—managers never fully engage with staff who they don’t expect to be around for long, meaning staff never become fully engaged and so become much more likely to leave even sooner.
How can restaurants break out of this cycle? Luckily, there are plenty of options, one of which—committing to training and development—we’ve already covered. Ideally, this should be just one aspect of an overall employee engagement strategy. The simplest place to start? Listening to employees. When staff feel their voice is heard, they are 360% more likely to feel empowered to perform their best work, according to a recent Salesforce report. Something as simple as asking for their feedback on menus can give employees more of a sense of involvement in the business—and make them more likely to stay.
Next, think about your scheduling process. It’s not sustainable for staff to routinely only be informed of shifts at the last minute—or, worse, turn up to work only be told they aren’t required. This doesn’t always happen because of bad faith—we all know effective staff scheduling isn’t quick, or easy—but it isn’t likely to make staff feel valued. At the end of the day, if you respect employees’ time their experience of work improves, and they are more likely to stick around.
Another consideration is burnout. It’s a growing problem in all industries—23% of workers feel burnout out very often or always, according to Gallup polling—and can be harmful to employees’ health in both the short and long term. If managers ignore the warning signs—and push employees to the limit—the consequences are dangerous. Of course, long hours and high pressure are unavoidable in the restaurant industry. But acknowledging the problem and learning to recognize the signs is half the battle.
The hard truth is that in an economy with record low unemployment, attracting and retaining the best staff means regularly reassessing your salary and benefits offerings. (Think about it this way: if you don’t, you’ll be spending the same, or more, searching for and retraining new staff.)
At the same time, it shouldn’t be forgotten that working in the food service industry offers great opportunities to employees—which are even more valuable if restaurants focus on learning and development. And if businesses are smart enough to make a great employee experience their USP, they’ll find it easier to attract and keep staff and—even better—they’ll also improve the experience they offer customers.