The restaurant industry is set to make a comeback this summer, but understaffed restaurants could dampen growth.
One possible solution for business owners: hire more teenagers. It’s easier said than done.
Andy Diamond, the president of the 12-site Angry Crab Shack fish chain, said he was ready to hire teenagers. He just doesn’t think teenagers want the jobs he needs to fill.
According to Diamond, the restaurant chain is facing a shortage of manpower for back-of-house positions such as dishwasher and cook. It has increased its hourly wages and offers referral bonuses in hopes of attracting serious applicants.
“Most teenagers, when they apply, don’t think they want to work in a kitchen,” said Diamond. “When they apply, they search 15 to 20 hours a week, and that’s more likely in front of the house.”
Cooks and dishwashers are typically 21 to 35 years old, he said. The jobs that are usually filled by younger workers like buses, runners, and hosts are full.
The discrepancy between the jobs young people are looking for and the jobs that need to be filled is just one reason why restaurants are currently struggling to find work. The leisure and hospitality industry, which includes bars and restaurants, is still 2.9 million fewer workers than it was before the pandemic. The unemployment rate in April surprisingly surged to 6.1%, defying the expectations of economists who had forecast an increase in hiring last month.
Entrepreneurs have fingered the current labor crisis in increased unemployment benefits and stated that prospective workers prefer to collect the checks rather than work on low-wage jobs. The extended benefits won’t expire until September, although Montana and South Carolina will end their participation in the program earlier. Other considerations that come first for job seekers are the risk of receiving Covid-19 and childcare. The restaurant workforce skews women, based on BLS data.
“I’ve certainly heard the anecdotes of cases where workers earn more from being unemployed than from work, but I think it’s incredibly difficult to figure out how much that is happening and if that is driving the bigger trend because we have the public health issue have the childcare issue, “said AnnElizabeth Konkel, economist at Indeed Hiring Lab.
Most of these problems do not affect teenagers. Child care is mostly not a problem. The Food and Drug Administration has approved the use of the Pfizer vaccine for adolescents aged 12 years or older. Moderna is currently testing its own vaccine on teenagers. Teens may also need jobs to support their families.
The catering industry traditionally employs around a third of all working young people. In 2020, 1.63 million people between the ages of 16 and 19 were working in food and drink places, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. This is a decrease from 1.73 million teenagers the year before as the coronavirus pandemic led to rising unemployment across all industries, especially hospitality.
However, the labor force participation of teenagers was already declining before the pandemic. After-school activities like exercise, volunteering, and college preparation take time off teenagers’ schedules and make them less likely to have a summer job. Internships – either paid or unpaid – led workers away from more traditional summer jobs like lifeguards or restaurant jobs.
Each year, the Greater Ocean City, Maryland Chamber of Commerce and other local business groups host a seasonal student job fair.
“We find that the number of students taking part in the seasonal workforce here is still limited,” said Lachelle Scarlato, director of the Chamber of Commerce.
This summer, Ocean City is forecasting a busier than usual season for its bars, restaurants, and shops due to increased domestic travel. Without the work of teenagers, there is a serious labor shortage in the region. Embassies lagged behind processing J-1 visas, which typically account for 4,000-5,000 seasonal workers for Ocean City companies. Only about 100 of the visas have been processed so far for the season, Scarlato said.
For some teenagers, it’s not for lack of trying. Karen Coyne, of Hagerstown, Maryland, said her 15-year-old son was struggling to find a job despite having required minors’ work permits. He applied to several fast food restaurants, but no luck. Coyne said they got the impression that companies don’t want to hire anyone his age.
Safety concerns during the Covid-19 pandemic have introduced new reasons for teens to stand out from the workforce. Health concerns aside, staff have also had to interact with warring customers who do not want to follow the guidelines of the place or company. In March, a Jack in the Box worker was stabbed to death by a customer whom he asked to wear a mask.
28 percent of respondents to Piper Sandler’s biannual survey of teenagers said Covid-19 was affecting their part-time employment or their ability to find work. The company conducted the survey between February 19 and March 24.
However, internship opportunities at Indeed are declining this year compared to 2019 and 2020, and teenagers, like the rest of us, are nervous about leaving their homes, according to Konkel.
“Generally there are fewer internships this summer so a college student or teenager may sit on the fence and say they’ll only work in a restaurant or retail store, a traditional summer job, especially if they said, ‘I’m looking for pay,” he said Konkel.
Some families have restricted the scope of their teenagers’ job searches due to the ongoing pandemic. Amy Gray is the mother of two teenagers who found summer jobs in, where they live, Cleveland. Although both her 19-year-old son and 16-year-old daughter were vaccinated, they limited their job searches to outdoor or virtual jobs.
“As a family, we don’t eat out in restaurants or go to other indoor spaces where people aren’t wearing masks,” Gray said. “Also, I work in the public sector and there is no way I would ask my children to deal with what I have been doing on a customer-related basis for the past nine months.”