Why the Restaurant Labor Shortage Continues and the Action Operators are Taking

Black Box Intelligence recently came out with their Restaurant Industry Performance Plus report for the week ending January 2, 2022. While there was some good news in comp sales, average check growth, and growing breakfast trends, the ongoing labor issue does not appear to be lessening.

Unfortunately, the end of 2021 saw record-high mentions of understaffed restaurants in online reviews for the casual dining segment. Full-service also received their share of short-staffed remarks, though they didn’t quite reach the record-breaking levels seen over the summer.

The report also noted that the minimum wage increased in 21 states at the beginning of 2022. While this may affect some operators, most restaurants have already raised their wages in an attempt to attract scarce talent. Despite the rising wages, November still saw over 1.3 million job openings in the leisure and hospitality sector.

As 2022 begins, it’s common to walk into your neighborhood restaurant and see an open-jobs posting or notice that they’ve reduced their operating hours. While some still claim the shortage is due, in part, to higher unemployment benefits, it’s clear that there’s much more to our current labor crisis.

Labor Shortage Statistics Reveal the Depths of the Crisis

7shifts reported on some figures that are nothing short of astounding. They derived their restaurant jobs data from over 1,800 restaurants and 2,400 job postings.

  • Only 23% of job postings for cooks received applications.
  • Just 37% of manager positions received applications.
  • About 56% of ads for bartenders received a response.

What? Bartending jobs were, at one time, considered gold in the industry. While late nights weren’t so great, the tips received meant fewer days working and more days surfing, hiking, or studying, depending on your makeup.

If the figures are correct, over 40% of bartender job listings find no response. Wow. That’s all I can say. Wow.

Where Have All the Workers Gone?

According to Restaurant Dive, a report by Black Box Intelligence and Snagajob revealed the three main reasons restaurant employees are not coming back.

  • 28% want higher pay.
  • 23% want a regular schedule and consistent income.
  • 17% are looking for employment that offers promotional opportunities and professional development.

Technomic’s Crisis on the Front Lines Multi Client Study revealed that 17% of restaurant employees found teaching and education positions, while 30% segued into office jobs. Gig work is also up substantially, as well as warehouse and logistics jobs due to the surge in online sales.

What Can Restaurants Do to Bring Back Employees?

So, what can restaurants do other than increase wages, change operating hours, and redefine managers’ roles? Whether in the restaurant, retail, or most other industries, employees want to work in an environment conducive to a balanced life and under managers that show them respect. Developing a strong, unified culture with employees that feel like they’re part of a team and have the potential to advance goes a long way in retaining staff and creating a space that others want to join.

Ross Yoder of BuzzFeed recently wrote a grueling article depicting some of the atrocities restaurant workers face from both customers and management. The common theme of all of the stories that employees shared was a lack of respect.

Of course, lack of respect has many forms, including outright cruelty, lack of empathy, and disregard for the welfare of others. While changing customer behavior is challenging, some actions should not be tolerated, even from those who pay the bills.

There are things operators and owners can do about a manager on staff who creates a toxic culture. Training and promoting from within gives employees an incentive and, having walked a mile in others’ shoes, offers a perspective that can lead to a better working environment for everyone.

The other long-standing issue that operators are addressing includes improving working conditions. This falls in line with consistent hours and better compensation packages. Unfortunately, the current shortage creates a vicious cycle with overworked employees that face burnout and unhappy customers that complain and go elsewhere.

While extremely difficult, maintaining adequate staff levels is critical to success. Blackbox Intelligence reported that a common rule of thumb for the correct number of employees for seated casual dining includes one server for every five or six tables per shift and four BOH staff per 50 tables.

Now, more than ever, it’s important to make sure your brand stands out as a fair and just workplace. The pandemic brought to light problems that have plagued our industry for some time. In its ever-hopeful wake, it’s leaving restaurant operators rethinking how they compensate, hire, interact, and engage with their employees.

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