Efforts to grow the restaurant labor pool face a big challenge: Time

The industry has a number of initiatives underway to pull more potential hires into the field. But the setback of the pandemic and the need for scale are deferring the payoff.
Candidate splashing around the labor pool. | Illustration by McCake

At the start of 2024, the Texas Restaurant Association announced it was embarking on an audacious mission that could radically ease the labor plight of restaurants and other businesses in the state. In the industry’s equivalent of trying to figure out cold fusion or enable quadriplegic people to walk again, it was pulling together representatives of other employer-heavy trades and their advocates to find ways of bringing the cost of childcare within reach of hourly workers.

The moonshot nature of the undertaking will require much of the current year to be spent in gathering information and exploring possibilities, a comprehensive “learning journey,” in the words of TRA Chief Public Affairs Officer Kelsey Streufert.

“The rough timeline is we start putting meat on the bone in fall 2024,” says Streufert. “Then the fall to winter of 2024 is when we’ll be talking about those ideas. January 2025 is when we start taking action.”  Not coincidentally, the Texas Legislature reconvenes next year on its peculiar every-other-year cycle.

Depending on the complexity and scope of the possible remedies, the results may not be seen for a considerable stretch. But, says Streufert, the effort is essential, given how much of a game-changer affordable childcare would be for the state’s employers. The number of potential hires would likely rise exponentially as parents enter the workforce instead of tending their kids around the clock.

“We need to grow our workforce,” she says. “We need to add 225,000 restaurant employees just in Texas.”

The situation is emblematic of the restaurant industry’s efforts some 45 years into the ongoing labor crisis to find employees. The prime imperative of the business has traditionally been drawing customers. Now that’s rivaled by the need to hire enough workers to serve a public that relies on restaurants as its kitchens.   

Individual operators have gone farther and farther afield from merely harping on their pay, the flexibility a restaurant position affords, or how they’re willing to give a shot to first-time job holders. Chicago fine-dining operator Etta Collective is fronting employees the money to buy their first homes. Chipotle Mexican Grill announced in late January that it would try to temper the financial anxiety of employees shouldering student loan payments.

A number of big operations, like Brinker International and Yum Brands, now provide tuition assistance or a full higher-education ride. And sweetened mental health benefits have become common, and appreciated. Starbucks’ program is the second most-used benefit, after a free Pandora subscription, according to former CEO Howard Schultz.

Simultaneously, industry groups are taking up broader, more systemic ways of enlarging the labor pool. They’re aiming to bring in demographic groups that may not have been welcomed in the past, such as convicts who’ve served their time, or largely overlooked, like young people who’ve dropped out of school without a plan for supporting themselves.

Like the TRA’s Employers for Childcare initiative, those high-altitude efforts are far more comprehensive and ambitious. But like that shot at a major fix, they’ll need time before they can move the needle.

“One of the things we‘ve learned is that these things have to start at a smaller place and they have to germinate and grow,” says Rob Gifford, president of the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation, the industry group charged with enlarging and educating the restaurant business’ labor pool. “We have to work out the kinks before they can scale.”

The NRAEF has four major pool-enlarging programs underway.

HOPES, or the Hospitality Opportunities for People (RE)entering Society, aims to establish restaurant jobs as a pathway back into mainstream society for ex-offenders leaving jails, prisons or other correctional facilities.

Another Foundation initiative, Restaurant Ready, is focused on youngsters who have dropped out of high school or opted not to attend college without a plan in mind of how to get by. The circumstances often put those individuals at risk of lapsing into crime or destitution. Restaurant Ready strives to provide them with basic job skills and steers them toward a restaurant career.

Individuals about to end their military service without a roadmap for what’s next are also a group the NRAEF is courting. “We help them out,” says Gifford. That effort extends to the veterans’ spouses as well, since many of them also face a post-service change in their lives.

Similar efforts have been undertaken by a number of chains, often with the intention of turning the vets into franchisees.

Two of the programs—HOPES and Restaurant Ready—were started relatively recently. “Since then, we’ve had a pandemic,” Gifford deadpans.

The crisis froze the endeavors in their earliest phases. Meanwhile, the industry’s labor situation was completely upended by a near-universal shutdown of restaurant dining rooms. By some estimates, two-thirds of the industy’s total workforce was laid off. Eight million decided not to come back, according to Gifford.

Now the NRAEF is revving up the programs again. But the payback likely won’t be felt tomorrow, next week or next month.

“Expanding the pool is a significant challenge,” says Gifford. “It has been for quite some time and it remains one.”

Yet there’s ample proof from the trade group’s fourth pool-enlarging program that it can be done.

“Clearly the crown jewel of our programs has been and will remain our ProStart program,” says Gifford, referring to the initiative that provides high-school students with an express path into foodservice careers. At 1,800 schools across 50 states, teens can opt for a combination of classroom and practical instruction aimed at preparing them for kitchen, front-of-house or headquarters jobs in the business.

An added benefit of the program is the eagerness of the student participants to work today in the business, before they’ve completed the ProStart curriculum. Gifford estimates that about 30,000 ProStart enrollees are currently working in foodservice or lodging jobs.

All told, about 160,000 students are currently enrolled in ProStart.

Acknowledging that enrollment in the Foundation’s other programs is much lower, Gifford points out that ProStart started with small contingents in six Chicago-area high schools back in 1997.

While those new initiatives find traction, overall employment for the industry is at least moving in the right direction, he observes.

“Pre-pandemic, we were at about 900,000 job openings,” says Gifford. “We’re still north of a million, but we’re down to 1.2 million,” from several times that tally.

In addition, “the quit rate has started to moderate,” he continues. ““The labor force participation rate”—the portion of employable Americans who opt to work—“has begun to increase, which is great. Sixteen to 19-year-olds are at their highest participation rate since 2009 right now.”

Is there a solution that would supercharge the trends and provide dramatic relief in an instant?

“It would be to have the American public have a perception of the opportunities in the restaurant industry that is consistent with what really exists,” he says. “To appreciate and understand the incredible opportunity the industry presents and the abundance of career paths in it.

“Because if they did, it would greatly help the industry.”

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