The restaurant industry is poised for a resounding comeback this summer, but understaffed eateries could slow growth.
One possible solution for entrepreneurs: hiring more teens. That’s easier said than done.
Andy Diamond, the president of the 12-site Angry Crab Shack seafood chain, said he is willing to hire teenagers. He just doesn’t think teens want the jobs he badly needs.
The restaurant chain is struggling with a shortage of employees for back-of-house functions such as dishwasher and cook. It has increased its hourly wages and is offering referral bonuses in hopes of attracting serious candidates.
“Most teens, when they apply, I don’t think they want to work in a kitchen,” said Diamond. “When they apply, they search 15 to 20 hours a week, which is more likely for the house.”
Cooks and dishwashers are usually 21 to 35 years old, he said. The jobs typically filled by younger workers, such as coaches, runners, and hosts, are fully staffed.
The discrepancy between the jobs teens are looking for and the jobs to be filled is just one of the reasons restaurants are currently struggling to find work. The leisure and hospitality industry, which includes bars and restaurants, still has 2.9 million employees below the pre-pandemic level. The unemployment rate in April rose surprisingly to 6.1%, which contradicted the expectations of economists who forecast an increase in hiring last month.
Entrepreneurs have pointed the finger at the current labor shortages to the increased unemployment benefits, saying that potential workers would rather cash the checks rather than work a low-paid job. The enhanced benefits will not expire until September, although Montana and South Carolina will end their participation in the program earlier. Other considerations that top the heads of job seekers’ minds include the risk of contracting Covid-19 and childcare. The restaurant industry workforce skews women, based on BLS data.
“I’ve certainly heard the anecdotes of cases where workers earn more from unemployment than a job, but I think it’s incredibly difficult to figure out how much that is happening and if that’s driving the bigger trend because we have the public health issue.” the demand for childcare, ”said AnnElizabeth Konkel, an economist for the Indeed Hiring Lab.
Most of these problems are not a problem for teens. Childcare is largely not a problem. The Food and Drug Administration has authorized the use of the Pfizer vaccine for adolescents who are at least 12 years old, and Moderna is currently testing its own vaccine on young people. Teens may also need jobs to support their families.
Traditionally, the restaurant industry employs about a third of all working teens. According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 1.63 million people between the ages of 16 and 19 were employed in food and beverage outlets in 2020. That’s down from 1.73 million teens a year earlier, when the coronavirus pandemic led to rising unemployment across all industries, particularly the hospitality industry.
However, the teen employment rate was already declining before the pandemic. Extracurricular activities such as sports, volunteering, and college prep take time off teens’ rosters, making them less likely to have vacation jobs. Internships – whether paid or unpaid – took employees away from more traditional summer jobs such as lifeguards or working in a restaurant.
Every year, the Greater Ocean City, Maryland Chamber of Commerce partners with other local business groups to hold a seasonal job fair aimed at high school students.
“What we see is that there is still limited involvement in the number of students participating in the seasonal workforce here,” said Lachelle Scarlato, executive director of the chamber of commerce.
This summer, Ocean City is predicting a busier than usual season for its bars, restaurants and shops due to increased domestic travel. Without the labor of teenagers, the area suffers from a severe labor shortage. Embassies are lagging behind in processing J-1 visas, which typically account for 4,000 to 5,000 seasonal workers for Ocean City companies. Only about 100 of the visas have been processed for the season so far, Scarlato said.
For some teens, it’s not because of a lack of effort. Karen Coyne of Hagerstown, Maryland, said her 15-year-old son is struggling to find a job despite the required work permit for a minor. He has applied to several fast food restaurants, but no luck. Coyne said they’ve got the impression that companies don’t want to hire someone his age.
Safety concerns during the Covid-19 pandemic have sparked new reasons for teens to stay out of the workforce. Aside from health concerns, employees have also had to interact with belligerent customers who don’t want to follow the guidelines of the place or company. In March, a Jack in the Box employee was stabbed by a customer who he asked to wear a mask.
Twenty-eight percent of respondents to Piper Sandler’s six-monthly survey of teens said Covid-19 impacted their part-time job or ability to find work. The company conducted the investigation between February 19 and March 24.
However, the number of job openings on Indeed is lower this year than in 2019 and 2020, and according to Konkel, teens, like all of us, are reluctant to leave their homes.
“In general, there are fewer internships this summer, so a college student or teen might sit on the fence and end up saying they’re just going to work in a restaurant or store, a traditional summer job, especially if they’re ‘looking for pay,'” said Konkel.
Some families have limited the scope of job search for their teens because of the ongoing pandemic. Amy Gray is the mother of two teenagers who found summer jobs in Cleveland, where they live. Although both her 19-year-old son and 16-year-old daughter were vaccinated, they limited their job search to positions that were outdoors or virtual.
“As a family, we don’t eat in restaurants or go to other indoor places where people don’t wear masks,” Gray said. “I also work in a public service and there is no way I can ask my children to deal with what I have dealt with in the client field for the past nine months.”