Why the Restaurant Labor Pool Feels Tighter and How to Address It

Jessica Elliott

Jessica couples her 24 years of restaurant and hospitality industry experience with meticulous research to deliver insight into technology, operations, and marketing topics. Her optimized copy helps companies engage their audience while strengthening their communication with clients, employees, and management.

You’ve likely seen an influx of job ads from those hunting for restaurant, bar, and hospitality staff. Before the pandemic, recruiting and retaining staff was hard. Last May, there were 898,000 open job positions just for restaurant positions. The low unemployment rates made it one of the toughest years for filling restaurant positions.  

Only a year later, open job positions totaled 469,000, reflecting fallout from the pandemic. Although we’re facing record-high unemployment rates, restaurant managers, owners, and consultants report labor shortages. Some cite reasons like long term workers leaving the industry. Others notice fewer students returning to college towns, leaving open jobs unfilled. 

Yes, times are tough, but those in the hospitality industry are a hardy bunch. You’ve faced challenges before, and you’ll do so again. After all, a tight labor pool isn’t new. Yet, many restaurant owners recognize the increasing importance of a hiring and retention strategy. Explore how restaurateurs are coping and overcoming labor issues during difficult times. 

Waitress with face mask serving happy couple outdoors on terrace restaurant.

What’s behind the current labor shortage? 

There are few doubts that the ongoing pandemic and shutdown impacts the availability of job applicants. But, long before coronavirus, the hospitality industry faced labor problems. A myriad of current issues compounds the problem. For instance:

  • 10% fewer full-time college students work than in 2000
  • Fewer high school students participating in the workforce
  • A lack of immigrant workers due to policy changes, COVID-19, and social issues
  • Long term employees leaving the industry 
  • Minimum wage increases leading to applicants seeking fewer tipped positions
  • Concerns about insurance coverage and other health-related uncertainties
  • Problems with childcare due to school and daycare closures

Will the labor market get better?

Let’s face it. You ran your restaurant with unfilled positions before. But, now you’re also juggling hefty reopening guidelines and budget cuts. At some point, the current crisis will end. People will look for work, kids will go back to school, and with the right plan, you’ll usher newcomers into the workforce.

Although the circumstances behind these issues are dire, many in the hospitality industry see better times coming. They’re setting up their business to benefit in the following months and years.

Hospitality labor pool: Hiring challenges and solutions

It’s essential to understand what’s keeping folks from applying or accepting job positions. The pandemic changed lives, altered how to find and apply for jobs, and made many people reconsider current positions. 

In some cases, it’s a wait-and-see game. Hospitality entrepreneurs need to ride out the storm while investing in strategic recruitment and retention plans. As a whole, the industry is suffering on various fronts. But those who plan for the future can position their restaurant to be a community leader and a top choice for job applicants. 

Problem: Your workplace culture, mission, or priorities aren’t clear 

As people enter the workforce, they increasingly look for employment that aligns with their beliefs or lifestyle. Many job applicants research your restaurant before applying for a job. Restaurant reviews, employment information on Glassdoor, and social media posts all influence their feelings about your food business. 

Unfortunately, not all restaurants tailor messaging to attract new job applicants. This lack of detail impacts job candidates more so during an ongoing health crisis. Vulnerable workers or those with immunocompromised family members may worry about the health risks of joining your crew. If applicants can’t figure out who you are and what it’s like to work for you, they may not apply for a job. 

Solution: Develop ongoing company awareness campaigns

Waiting until the job interview to promote your restaurant workplace culture doesn’t cut it. Instead, you need an ongoing campaign that energizes your recruitment program. For example, consider adding: 

  • A web page showcasing the benefits of working for your restaurant
  • An FAQ resource with workplace safety guidelines and answers to top applicant questions
  • Testimonials from current and previous employees 
  • Photos of staff and management working and socializing together

Problem: Job candidates worry about job security and stability

The pandemic added a new level of instability to the job market. Many candidates worry that your restaurant may close or cut hours without notice. Others may think you’re only hiring for a temporary uptick in work, and they’ll get laid off once your busy season subsides. While you can’t predict the future, you can soothe anxious job applicants with transparent communications. 

Solution: Provide transparency during outreach efforts

There are no guarantees in the restaurant industry. However, you can put job applicants at ease by sharing details about your success, length of time in business, and ways you assist employees during difficult times. Use your website and social media channels to:

  • Share various ways that employees can shift to other job functions if your restaurant closes in-house dining.
  • Create an applicant resource page that explains how management communicates and supports teams.
  • Talk to existing employees about how your restaurant handled difficult decisions during the pandemic. Then share their stories via video or testimonials.

Problem: Applicants face significant personal challenges 

Shift workers expect to work weekends and nights while adapting to an ever-changing schedule. Yet, 2020 added a new level of stress and scheduling concerns. While you can’t hire people who aren’t available, you can take steps to alleviate some pain points or offer solutions. 

Solution: Offer extra resources and flexibility 

Compassion goes a long way in the restaurant industry. Think about the different areas currently holding eligible restaurant employees back from applying. Some may live with vulnerable populations, while others may no longer have childcare. And with school up in the air for many, this situation remains volatile. Provide reassurance and resources by:

  • Compiling a resource list for applicants that discusses local options for financial support, childcare considerations, and safety measures
  • Offering flexibility in work schedules to account for second jobs or childcare duties 
  • Connecting new hires with other team members who can mentor or help them navigate personal challenges

Problem: Your job post gets lost in the flood of opportunities

In some areas, the market is flooded with open restaurant job positions. Although last year people walked through your doors asking about a job, now a delivery-only model or outdoor dining may limit access to your building. Or job applicants simply don’t know that you’re hiring.  

Solution: Develop a hospitality recruitment strategy 

Recruiting new employees isn’t a one-time deal. You should continually update your hiring plan and seek out potential applicants. Good ways to develop a robust recruitment strategy include: 

  • Create an employee referral plan.
  • Provide an online application and make sure it’s easy to use.
  • Participate in local school work programs.

Don’t forget to build retention into your strategy, as well. Retaining employees reduces expenses, improves guest experiences, and supports a healthy restaurant culture.

Options for operating with less staff

To combat the current issues, some in the hospitality industry are moving in new directions that involve fewer staff members or diversifying business models. Below are some examples of how restaurant owners adapt to smaller teams and an uncertain market.

Companies reduce their business hours

Having employees out sick or unfilled job positions lead to slim shift coverage and difficult scheduling decisions. Some restaurant owners report higher demand for dayshift hours. But others say they’re working harder to stay flexible for daytime staff suddenly without childcare. By reducing hours of business or staying open fewer days a week, restaurant owners use smaller teams while still generating revenue. 

Restaurants pare down menu offerings

Less staff means fewer people to handle deliveries, prep, and all the other fun stuff that happens behind the scenes. You need workers on the front lines to take the orders, but you still have to come up with a crew to handle everything else. Several restaurants, like Red Robin Gourmet Burgers and McDonald’s, removed items from their menu to protect profit margins, adjust to supply shortages, and keep operating.

Business models pivot from full service to quick service

For both safety reasons and to address the labor shortage, some restaurants are shifting their business model. According to Eater, brands like Nyum Bai and Buffalo Jump recently enacted changes that allow them to keep their doors open with less staff. It’s not an easy decision, but for many, switching from full service to quick service means survival. 

Restaurateurs diversify services 

Delivery services, meal kits, and ghost kitchens were on the rise before the pandemic. And those who entered 2020 with alternative income streams may have buffered their losses somewhat. Forbes reports that small bakeries and pizzerias began offering baking and pizza kits while a fast casual restaurant now sells bulk meal boxes. Restaurateurs continue to innovate their way through new challenges.

Amplify your hiring and retention efforts for maximum exposure

Finding and retaining employees is always difficult in the restaurant industry. Throw in a million other challenges, and it’s like walking a tightrope without a net. You have the resolve, innovation, and resources to move forward, even if that path looks different from before. 

Use this time to develop an influential restaurant culture, build relationships in your community, and enhance your recruitment and retention program. When owners, managers, staff, and guests come together, anything is possible. 


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