The REAL Reason for The Great Restaurant Labor Shortage

There has been a lot of chatter lately about the first few dozen states cutting short the pandemic unemployment benefit in an effort to get folks to return to work. In a May 2021 article from NBC News by Dartunorro Clark, the topic is polarizing with the right claiming that ending the program early will spur folks to return to work rather than cling to the free check…while the left implores businesses to pay higher wages to entice workers back.

On my phone today I read an article in Apple News / CNN Politics discussing how even the mid-June 2021 end to benefits is not netting new employees. One owner of several auto repair shops in Indiana had hoped the end of benefits would mean he could finally staff his business. He has received a surge in applications but when he calls them to come in for an interview, he gets no response.

On the flipside, In May, 2021, I read an article from The Guardian by Michael Sainato about how restaurants trying to lure employees back to work are failing to deliver professional environments or reneging on their promises to pay signing bonuses.

Ending entitlements is supposed to force-squeeze some industriousness from the affected but it does so by starving them back to work. Paying higher wages is meant to pull folks back in by bribing them with the promise of a better life, but it will surely pass on the extra costs to consumers (aka inflation). If higher pay (signing bonuses accompanied by better wages) isn’t working… and cutting off “the handout” (as the right likes to call it) isn’t working, then what’s the problem?

Depending on which news you subscribe to, you’ll hear both arguments…but is either correct? I have a hunch, as it relates to the restaurant business, and it leans toward the “higher wages” argument…but it isn’t about higher wages, per se.

Reading between the lines, it seems that ex-restaurant workers are looking to capitalize on this chance to do “something better”. There are certain jobs in America that, for one reason or another, don’t garner much respect from one’s peers as other jobs do. Electricians, plumbers, carpenters, masons, linemen, heavy equipment operators… can all tell their neighbors what they do and be proud of it. For whatever reason, restaurant work is perceived as one of those “less than” occupations with cooks, in my opinion, slightly edging out service folks in the “respectability” column (i.e. – being a “server” is a sure-fire way to annoy your parents and ostracize you from most neighborhood Bunko group or tennis team invitations). There are certainly other vocations that probably fit into this category like auto repair, retail sales, sanitation management, or road work. For some reason our country believes everyone should aspire to go to college and become a doctor or lawyer…and we’re graded on a scale for how far short we came up. Those who didn’t go to college, for some reason, may be perceived as unintelligent, unambitious, directionless, or otherwise incapable. Those who work in restaurants are below them.

This is truly a much bigger topic but it’s rooted in our free-market, competitive upbringing and lack of skills identification. In many other countries, the education system identifies talents, propensities, and inclinations at an early age. By the time many European and Asian children are in 6th grade, everyone generally knows what that child will likely be good at…and if we’re good at something and a career is out there that lets us do that thing, we may weigh the economic impact of that career path with less importance. We tell our kids they can be the President of the United States if they work hard enough…and we tell them this until…and through…their first SAT results. If they bomb it, we say, “study harder, try again!”…all-the-while bombarding them with desire to look like the hottie in the advertisement or drive the car they can’t yet afford. At an early age, young adults find themselves over leveraged and directionless …unless they somehow walked the doctor tightrope…or one just a few “below” it. They fumble around for the scraps of whatever is left, whether it’s settling on the 2nd or 3rd or 4th choice school or taking odd jobs to support their overspending on things they can’t afford. So yes, they end up in odd jobs…and yes, every American knows how they got there…hence the lack of respect. The path to restaurant work is often, if not mostly, an accidental journey full of errors and missteps…so perhaps the labels and sentiments are warranted.

I went into Food and Beverage on purpose. I studied it in school (JMU BBA in Hospitality Management + CIA AOS in Culinary Arts). I couldn’t wait to work at the local country club, starting as a dish washer. I was proud and did a good job, getting promoted to prep cook, which allowed me to apply the following summer at a busier, more significant restaurant. I love the business and always have, since cooking in my kitchen with my mother at a young age. I’ve always been baffled by the assignment of “2nd class” industry by folks I’ve tried to explain it to over the years. I see their eyes dim when I tell them what I do. Their eyes say it all… “oh… you’re not too bright huh?” But then they hear I also earned an MBA from a highly respected business school (Emory/Goizueta)…which is followed by some quizzical looks and words hinting that I must’ve screwed up to waste it on Food and Beverage. Huh? What else would I use it on? Or maybe (likely) I’m just overly sensitive because I know what “restaurant worker” connotes.

My much bigger solution is to go after the way we steer our young people to careers they will love. Some people are born to cook! It’s a talent like playing the violin (and no I don’t believe anyone will be able to play with the Boston Pops after 10,000 hours of deliberate practice) or singing or playing soccer. I’m sure there are lawyers and doctors today who really should be chefs. The world is missing some amazing restaurants because some bright, naturally talented lover of food – someone who sees The Matrix when they look in their fridge or walk the grocery store aisles – chose the wrong path in the name of respect. Same goes for restaurant managers…and auto mechanics.

What COVID did was expose how our society makes the people who do the jobs we don’t respect feel. They don’t WANT to go back. They want to do something BETTER. It’s a shame that they don’t feel respected in these jobs. Yes, paying them more might make them feel better…but maybe the world will think differently when restaurants can’t reopen or survive because of a labor shortage. Maybe the US needs this shortage to finally learn to value the job we do.  Maybe folks will start to think twice about barking orders at their server or about looking down their noses at their neighbor who works as a line cook. They’re very physical and difficult jobs – both kitchen and service jobs, but they’re rewarding!  They take skill, patience, work ethic, and commitment to do them well…and not everyone can do it well. Ending “the handout” isn’t going to starve people back to the employee rolls. Paying more is on the right track…but more important is the respect (or lack of it) that is ascribed to it. And if people have to pay more to eat out because restaurants have to pay more to attract talent, then that’s the burden we must bear. Or… we may not have to suffer that consequence if we can just start revering our friends, children, and neighbors who do this wonderful work of managing our dining experiences.


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