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Think beyond the basic channels: Alternate sources of labor could prove a boon for operators.
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Restaurants’ labor problems are at an all-time high, but so may be the efforts to pull and keep candidates from the depleted pool of potential hires. Population segments that were once too small or controversial to merit the industry’s attention—from former prison inmates to recovered substance abusers and children aging out of foster care—are now being squarely targeted by new and often experimental programs. 

Here’s a sampling of alternative recruitment channels and some nontraditional ways to foster retention.

Youngsters aging out of foster care

At age 18 or 21, depending on the state, young people are required by law to exit foster care. The presumption is they’re adults ready to make their way in the world—the euphemistic term for their release is “emancipation”—but statistics tell a different and far sadder study. More than half will be without a job within four years, and 1 in 4 of them will end up homeless within that time, according to fast-casual salad chain Tender Greens. 

The West Coast chain is throwing the emancipated a lifeline by offering six-month paid internships. Enrollees learn the business by washing dishes and performing other entry-level tasks, working their way to more jobs with more responsibility, just as any other hire would. If the candidates survive the six-month internships, they’re offered a regular job. The chain estimates that about 26,000 youngsters age out of foster year in a typical year.

Tender Greens isn’t the only operation that’s providing paid restaurant training to that population. Monkey Business Cafe, a two-unit operation in Southern California, was launched specifically to function as a bridge from foster care to self sufficiency. Current employees have aged out of California’s support system, with mentoring provided by older peers who traveled that same route. 

Workforce dropouts

More than 5 million young people are neither students nor active members of the workforce, though not by choice, according to the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation (NRAEF). It cites findings that 75% of that group, known as “opportunity youth,” would prefer to work as a way of improving their lives, but are alienated from that social track. The Association and a number of community groups are aiming to turn those young people into candidates for restaurant jobs through a six-city program called Restaurant Ready.

The NRAEF describes itself as the “convener” of the 3-year-old program, bringing together community training and rehabilitation programs with state and local restaurant associations.  The idea is to find local groups that can prepare opportunity youths ages 16 to 24 for entry into the job market. The hope is the youngsters will opt for restaurant jobs, but the focus is on fundamental skills that will help the participants in whatever field they may enter.

The Restaurant Ready program was recently expanded into Chicago. It is already offered in Dallas; New Orleans; Fort Collins, Colo.; Washington, D.C.; and Salinas, Calif.

Aspiring managers and chefs

No longer are apprenticeships solely dedicated to training chefs.  The NRAEF, through a grant from the U.S. Department of Labor, has set up a program to boost retention of front- and back-of-house crewmembers by offering them an earn-as-you-learn route to becoming restaurant managers within two years.  There’s also the potential recruitment benefit of providing a path to management-level positions without running up a huge debt from college loans. And because of the grant, there’s no cost to employers. The first graduates are settling into their new management jobs now, with 1,000 more staffers currently enrolled in the program. 

But that’s not the only way apprenticeships are being reworked to meet the industry’s current needs. The American Culinary Federation (ACF), a chefs group, recently revamped its 40-year-old program to offer digital distance learning as an alternative to actual classroom time, a change intended to extend culinary apprenticeships to more would-be chefs in the hinterlands. “There’s a mistaken impression that future chefs need to relocate to a small list of big cities in order to get the highest level of training and experience—that no longer has to be the case,” said Jeremy Abbey, the ACF’s director of culinary programs.

Delaware’s Department of Labor recently announced the launch of a statewide apprenticeship program for cooks, a collaboration with the Delaware Restaurant Association. The classroom part of the initiative is based on the textbook used for the NRAEF’s ProStart program, the 15-year-old alternate career track for high school juniors or seniors who are more interested in pursuing a foodservice career than slogging through a traditional all-classroom education. 

Ex-offenders

A slew of state and local programs have been launched in recent years to provide former prison inmates with an alternative to lapsing back into crime. Task One is preparing and helping the 650,000 ex-offenders released every year to find a job, and the obvious place to look for that new start is in the restaurant industry. Initiatives focused on instilling both technical foodservice abilities and softer skills such as how to act during a job interview continue to crop up, presenting restaurants with a sizeable workforce that can be highly motivated and appreciative. The programs carry such names as Getting Out and Staying Out (New York City), Kitchens for Good (San Diego), Safer Foundation (Chicago), Chrysalis (Los Angeles), Hope for Prisoners (Las Vegas) and D.C. Kitchen (Washington, D.C.).

A website called Second Chance Jobs for Felons lists 42 restaurant chains among  the 275 “felon friendly” U.S. companies that now hire ex-offenders, from McDonald’s to In-N-Out, Braum’s, Starbucks and Golden Corral. Included are all the brands of Bloomin’ Brands, Brinker International and Dine Brands Global. 

The movement to connect ex-offenders with potential employers was recently given considerable topspin on a national basis. The White House announced in mid-June that it will promote “second-chance hiring” through an administration-wide effort. The steps include the startup of a Ready to Work Initiative, a forum for employers to reach the formerly incarcerated, by the Department of Justice and the Bureau of Prisons. Two million dollars have been earmarked to help states underwrite private corporations’ efforts to hire individuals released from prison, and a federal job registry. The federal job registry, USAJobs, will be made available to inmates and those who were just released from a facility. 

The National Restaurant Association recently pledged to promote the hiring of deserving ex-offenders through a program called Getting Talent Back to Work, an initiative backed by Koch Industries. The group’s stated goal is to provide candid information about hiring released convicts. 

Included is a “risk analysis” that compares an employer’s risks with the benefits to be gained.

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