Attracting and Retaining Youth Labor

The summer season typically sees a sharp decrease in the youth unemployment rate. Each year, the youth labor force — 16 to 24-year-olds working or actively looking for work — grows sharply between April and July as high school students search for summer jobs and new graduates seek permanent employment. Many begin their careers in the foodservice industry, but year-round unemployment rates and turnover in the sector remain high.

In fact, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the July 2021 youth unemployment rate of 10% was almost a percentage point higher than in July of the previous year. Why, even as youth-friendly employers in the food and retail sectors begin to open up, does unemployment linger in double digits, and how can restaurants, in particular, better attract and retain young workers?

The answer is largely cultural. While competitive wages and baseline employee benefits rightfully factor into their job search, youth are also interested in greater holistic benefits, such as cultural fit and having access to real growth opportunities. Creating the right environment is a tall order, but the good news is that even small changes can have lasting positive effects.

First and foremost, workplaces need to meet youth where they are in terms of their development. Young workers typically enter the foodservice environment with no work experience and need a great deal of coaching, patience, and guidance as they navigate new tasks, such as interacting with customers.

Just as teachers scaffold learning in the classroom, managers need to be explicit in instructions and supportive through early challenges. This is key to developing trust, strong mentor relationships, and constructive feedback loops in a fast-paced work environment.

Good communication strategies with youth include sandwiching constructive feedback between positive remarks and regularly checking in with team members to address questions and concerns well beyond the first few weeks. Demonstrating to youth that you’re invested in their development breeds loyalty and commitment. Moreover, modeling healthy leadership and communication will directly affect how youth interact with patrons and other staff members.

Creating growth opportunities and career pathways in-house is also an excellent way to increase employee engagement and hedge for turnover through cross-training. An introductory rotational program, for example, is a great way to develop well-rounded employees who are familiar with all business functions and priorities. This builds worker confidence, a collegial atmosphere, greater understanding and empathy between employees, and a strong internal talent pool.

According to a Gallup survey, young workers seek jobs that make them feel secure, valued, and purposeful. By creating, marketing, and delivering on job opportunities that help youth smoothly transition into the work environment, build relationships with supportive adults, and develop their soft and technical skills, food establishments can find and hold on to the best talent this up and coming generation has to offer.

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