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Plugging the talent drain

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A QSR humming through the lunch rush is sweeter than a Carpenters medley to veterans who rose from sweaty, pressure-filled crew jobs to find wealth and success as chain executives. It’s common to speak of them as having ketchup in their veins.

It’s the special sauce that helped them engineer how to move hundreds of guests through counter and drive-thru lines in minutes, all while keeping a concept true to its beginnings. Like any other passion, it can’t be taught.

Fortunately, it can be contagious; a teen who grudgingly took the job for a paycheck finds the rush of teamwork to be as delicious as anything they feel on a basketball court. Hemoglobin turns into a different sort of red stuff, and a restaurant professional is born.

Or so it’s gone for decades. But the summer of 2017 hastened a trend that counters the tradition. The warning flare was fired during our Restaurant Trends & Directions conference in Chicago, when many a QSR manager might have been wondering why they weren’t getting as many summer job candidates as they had in the past.

Economist Arjun Chakravarti, a professor at the Illinois Institute of Technology’s Stuart School of Business, suggested a summer job is no longer worth it. The pay is too low to make a dent in ancillary school expenses like books, and investing that time in pursuit of an education provides a much higher return. “They’re saying, it’s really much better for us to get out of school a year earlier and earn money, real money,” he said.

If they’re forgoing a taste of the restaurant business, how will ambitious young people be exposed to restaurant fever and forged into the next leaders?

Fortunately, the industry is cooking up a potion. Last year, the National Restaurant Association secured a grant to develop earn-as-you-learn programs to turn hourly workers into managers with the competencies restaurants need in their future leaders.

The apprenticeship program dovetails with an NRA initiative that’s intended to get the intravenous ketchup flowing: Choose Restaurants encourages youngsters to consider how they’d like to earn a living, and then see how they can indulge that passion within the restaurant business.

We salute the NRA for showing that foresight. If you’re in this business for the long haul, you should, too.

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