By Andrew Parr
The restaurant industry is losing outstanding, highly skilled, loyal employees at a remarkable pace. The reasons are varied. Some indicators are rather obvious and apparent, however there is one reason that is deeply rooted in the long-standing culture of our industry and the true underpinning of the exodus — time. Not necessarily that it is time, but rather the newfound abundance of time that most restaurant employees never had before.
Let’s begin with the devastating statistics. The unemployment rate for the leisure and hospitality segment in February 2020 was 5.7%. That grew to 8.1% in March and reached its apex of 39.3% in April. Those numbers have been gradually receding since April, with marks of 35.9% in May, 28.9% in June and 25% in July. The July number, to put it in context, is still more than double the national unemployment rate of 10.2%. In terms of actual numbers rather than percentages, there are currently about 9.3M people employed in the leisure and hospitality segment, up 3M from June, but still down from over 15M in February. While certainly improving, not exactly a rosy picture. There could, unfortunately, be a reversal of fortune coming within eight weeks or so, as summer turns to fall, and many major cities have outdoor dining permits and variances that will be expiring.
Some of the reasons for exiting the industry are predictable. One concern is the lack of stability and security. Employees are fearful that scheduled hours may be cut further or that their restaurant may permanently shut its doors. This fear is exacerbated by the pending onset of fall and winter resulting in the potential elimination of outdoor dining space; further limiting capacity. There is also the worry over health and safety issues. With a large number of employees gathered for service in close quarters and extended periods of time with customers, the fear of infection and spread is real. Not only are employees concerned for their own health, but also for the possibility of putting family members at risk. Another reason for leaving, endemic of our industry, is poor communication. When ownership provides little or inconsistent information to its employees, the typical default is to anticipate the worst. If owners can’t be bothered to deliver regular communication to their employees, it shows a lot about their level of concern for workers’ well-being. This, regrettably, is not something new as a result of the pandemic, but rather has been an existing dilemma in our industry for a long time. Here is the crux of the current state: One of the largest contributing factors to people leaving the restaurant industry all the way up and down the org chart is…the pandemic has provided people with time. Time which they have never had before as part of our industry. Time away from the intense grind to take stock, to be self-reflective, and to gain perspective. This has ignited the desire to escape an industry that can be brutal, unforgiving, and regularly keeps people away from occasions with their family and friends. You see, many in the industry work 60 or more hours per week, be it at one job, or through the necessity of having more than one job to make ends meet. Without that obligation, restaurant employees have the time to think, ponder and contemplate their existence (and their future). Why do we do what we do? It’s a hard life; and people are now asking themselves why go back to it? The reduced hours restaurant employees have been forced to accept during the pandemic has given a glimpse of “normalcy” to people who have never had it. An elixir of comfort and fear have kept restaurant workers from exploring other employment options. Comfort in knowing they have a job, and the fear that their skills are not transferable to another industry with the same or better earning potential.
We are a resilient people, in an industry that is constantly changing and evolving. These same people now have the realization that they can take that resiliency and use it as a springboard to a new career in a new sector. Why? Because, as Rita Mae Brown said through her fictional character Jane Fulton, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results.” (Nope, it was not Albert Einstein that said that.) Restaurant employees are on the precipice of taking the leap to do something different to get a different result. They are translating the guest experience — hospitality — into a new line of work. Many are leaving for the prospect of entrepreneurship. Perhaps something in the gig economy, or maybe real estate, insurance or mortgage brokerage. Because not only are we resilient, but we are also self-reliant; and the reality is that we have high level, easily transferable skills for myriad professions. It should be unsurprising to think that so many want to be free from the constraints of working for someone else.
All of this being said, I am certainly not advocating for the flight of restaurant workers from the industry. Quite the contrary, I am advocating for the recognition of the restaurant worker as a true professional. The same way we recognize so many of the traditional nine-to-fivers as professionals. People who expect and receive employment benefits. Health insurance, paid time off and paid sick days. People who are able to spend birthdays, anniversaries and holidays with their families. People who not only earn vacation time, but also are able to use it. People who don’t need to send texts to their partners explaining that they will be home after volume decline…whenever that may be. What is important to understand is that there is no single right answer on how to get there. There is a path, however, with many branches, that will allow for each operator to get there in the way that is right for them and for their employees. The time for change is, quite frankly, yesterday and the days before that. The pandemic has not created this situation, it has merely served to expose a precarious weakness in the industry which has existed for some time. Jensen Cummings of Best Served suggests one way to look at finding a solution is to consider how each employer can strive to be the leader in the industry akin to Google. Not because of the bouncy ball chairs at their desks or because of the foosball tables in the common area, but rather because Google invests the most in culture and education. Change is required on many fronts right now, let’s not leave this one behind.
Andrew Parr, Angry Olive Consulting's Founder and Best Served Creative’s CHO, is a restaurant and hospitality industry leader with over 25 years of experience including consulting, project management, restaurant operations and talent acquisition. His education includes a BA in Psychology and History from the University of Wisconsin along with a JD from Hamline University School of Law.
Andrew was born and raised in Milwaukee, WI, and currently resides in Denver with his wife Jody and their dog Cooper. Andrew is a Past President of the Board of Directors for the Scleroderma Foundation – Rocky Mountain Chapter.