Dealing with teenage workers

Joseph “Smokey” Simmons doesn’t have a lot of love for today’s teenage restaurant workers. “These kids expect to go to school for two years and come out as a chef,” says Simmons, owner of Our Daily Bread Chef Services, a catering outfit in Cincinnati, Ohio. “You have to negotiate [with] and placate them. Even if you try to cow-tow to them, give them the things they seem to say they want, it seems they aren’t satisfied. Their focus is limited. They’re so flighty.”

And that’s just the ones who show up for work.

No generation of teens has escaped criticism from the nation’s employers. But even those who study teenagers for a living say that this current crop is in a class all to itself.

“Everyone is having a hard time with teenage employees because the work ethic has radically shifted,” says Eric Chester, president and founder of Generation Why in Lakewood, Colorado, and author of “Getting Them to Give a Damn,” a book about managing 16- to 24-year-olds in the workplace. He says that’s mostly because parents don’t teach them how to work.

“This generation [is] so entitled, and everyone is expected to treat them like gold from day one,” Chester adds. “If an employer tells you they are not having problems with teenagers they are lying.”

There are roughly 70 million members of Generation Y, kids born after 1980. They have been branded—fairly or not—as far more spoiled and in need of hand holding compared with the generation immediately preceding it, Gen X.

“Generation X was the most abandoned generation,” says Carolyn Martin, Ph.D., a principal at Rainmaker Thinking, a research and management-training company in New Haven, Connecticut. “Generation Y is the most supervised.”

Because of that upbringing, young adults are blessed with a highly developed sense of privilege. “They have
high expectations of managers,”

Martin says. “And they demand respect.” They also “have a take-it-or-leave-it attitude,” says Brian Beers, a divisional vice president at Buca Inc., a Minneapolis-based company with 97 restaurants. “They take [jobs] because they need money for some­thing to buy. They are not so big picture focused. It does seem
to be a challenge because they seem less motivated [than previous generations].”

No matter. Restaurants can’t exactly get by without them. According to the National Restaurant Association, the number of 16- to 24-year-olds in the labor force increased 4 percent from 1992 to 2002 and is expected to grow 9 percent between 2002 and 2012. But Generation Y is entering the workforce later than previous generations. “It has to do with their culture,” explains David Scarborough, chief scientist at Unicru, a hiring management firm in Beaverton, Oregon. “Hard manual labor is not valued.”

So how do you whip these young people into shape? It’s not so easy. In a lot of ways, employers must adjust their ways to accommodate this generation’s expectations. Chester says that face time is profoundly important to today’s teens. “Make them feel like they are not just a cog in the wheel,” he advises.

That doesn’t mean managers have to be pals with teen workers. Rather, Chester suggests informing teens about the brand of the restaurant, the founder and how they can fit into the environment. Another suggestion: feed them, family style, before the place opens to help them fit in. “[Generation Y] is phenomenally loyal to those individuals that show loyalty to them,” Chester says.

Some operators have found success playing to teens’ short attention span, giving them several small tasks. Amie Hansen, new restaurant openings manager for Minnetonka, Minnesota-based Famous Dave’s, which operates 126 restaurants in 31 states, says that teens need very clear-cut direction and “a lot of activity.” She suggests that teens respond when you give them new responsibilities. In some of her restaurants, an employee that holds a front door position—usually a teen—can also manage cleaning lists or prepare managers for the next day’s shifts.

Scarborough says you can’t assume teens have been socialized in the workplace. They need more training. He recommends using a buddy system, teaming teens with experienced employees.

Harry Bond, president of Monical Pizza Corp. in Bradley, Illinois, with 58 restaurants, says the main difference he’s noticed working with Generation Y is that they lack experience that previous generations would have the first day on the job. Today you have to teach kids how to mop a floor, he says, including instructions on not mixing ammonia and bleach. Some of his stores have had to start contests to get teenagers to remember to deliver checks when customers are done eating.

Talk about starting from square one.

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