The restaurant industry has a people problem—as in there are not enough of them. Operators around the country are struggling to fill empty positions. Rapid industry job growth and record-low unemployment rates, dipping below 3.5% in some states, don’t help the matter. However, they’re not the only factors creating a grueling labor market. Several forces are stacking up, creating taller and taller hurdles for hiring managers. So where have restaurant workers gone?
Some restaurateurs would argue that the industry is scaring workers away. David Howard, president of Neighborhood Dining Group, says staffers are going anywhere but restaurants. “As an industry, when we ask why people are leaving our companies—but then we ask them to work 14 hours in a 90-degree kitchen with no windows and a high-stress environment—we need to be self-critical,” says Howard, whose group operates chef Sean Brock’s Husk, McCrady’s and Minero. “We have to do better.”
Kevin Johnson, owner of the The Grocery in Charleston, S.C., has seen workers move to higher-paying work for distributors. “The industry itself has diversified, and a restaurant chef is not the only option now,” he says. Howard, too, says he has seen staffers who have been in the industry for 15 years decide to take outside jobs, like at aerospace company Boeing, for example. To prevent that talent and experience drain, the Southeastern restaurant group has a policy against managers working more than 55 hours a week. To enforce the rule, managers are not allowed to schedule themselves. And as an added measure to lessen stress, the group is starting to focus more on mental health. It is considering bringing in outside consultants to teach staff about communication and time management.
Although industry norms may push some workers out, most are staying, says Victor Fernandez, executive director of research and knowledge for researcher TDn2K. Its recent survey finds that half of restaurants’ main source of labor competition is from their own segment; another 37% say it’s from restaurants overall.
One issue: Many markets are reaching a saturation point for foodservice venues. And it’s not likely to lighten up. “We do expect the upcoming quarters will be harder in terms of finding qualified employees,” Fernandez says. “Things are escalating.”
With job seekers calling the shots, candidates can afford to be more picky when it comes to the work environment. “Employees are increasingly looking for employers with a cultural fit that meets their expectations,” says John Dell, a franchisee of 98 Subway restaurants. Adopting the chain’s new Fresh Forward design prototype, with digital advances and trendier uniforms, has cut turnover in half at one of his units in Knoxville, Tenn., Dell says.
Out of house and home
Due to the characteristically low wages for some restaurant workers, the rising cost of housing in many areas is pushing them out of city limits, Gwyneth Borden, executive director of the Golden Gate Restaurant Association, told magazine Mother Jones. For instance, the median cost for a home in San Francisco is up to $1.4 million, according to Curbed SF. That’s not affordable for most California restaurant cooks.