Investing in underutilized talent pools can strengthen the restaurant workforce

Hiring and retaining staffers is a top concern among restaurant operators, and tapping into underemployed populations offers a solution that can benefit restaurants, the overall industry and the communities it serves. Investing in populations such as military spouses, opportunity youth and formerly incarcerated people can provide valuable job training and opportunities to groups that have been overlooked, and create a new pool of motivated, loyal employees, a panel of experts said Sunday during a session at the National Restaurant Association Show in Chicago.

The restaurant industry provided 14.7 million jobs in 2017, and The National Restaurant Association expects that figure to grow by 1.6 million by 2027. Recruiting from untapped talent pools can offer a solution to an already tight labor market, said Kimberly Shin, associate director of the Talent Rewire Initiative for consulting firm FSG, who moderated the panel.

“As we’re looking at low unemployment, it’s even more important to seek people where you may not have looked for them before,” said Laura FitzRandolph, executive vice president and chief human resources officer for HMSHost.

Overlooked, underestimated and underemployed

These populations that hold huge potential as hiring pools for the foodservice and hospitality industry are vastly underrepresented, especially in proportion to their size. One in seven people in the US between the ages of 16 and 24 is classified as “opportunity youth,” meaning they aren’t employed or in school, according to FSG. Among the US adult population, nearly 1 in 3 have a criminal record.

Many restaurants may already count former inmates among their staffers without knowing it. When fast-casual pizza chain MOD Pizza discovered that this was the case at some of its stores, the company “leaned into it,” said Megan Hansen, who serves as MOD’s senior vice president of people. The company now has a goal of having one-third of its employees be opportunity hires, including formerly incarcerated people, opportunity youth and people with disabilities.

Several panelists noted that the rate of retention among opportunity hires is higher than average. At MOD, Hansen said the opportunity hire initiative has had a ripple effect, driving up the retention rate of general managers. “They see the value they’re adding in people’s lives, which is adding value to their lives,” she said.

A support network helps staffers succeed

In order to add value to employees’ lives and get the most from their staff, employers need to create a supportive environment in which opportunity hires can succeed. Partnering with community-based organizations can help restaurants with recruiting and provide a support network for employees.

Community organizations can help bridge the gap, supporting people when they aren’t at work to enable them to keep going to work, said Monica Tijerina, director of McDonald’s Global Youth Program.

FitzRandolph said companies should also work with managers to create an environment of success. HMSHost uses a recognition program called Shout Out that rewards progress in addition to results, since “managers need to understand the learning curve may be very different,” for opportunity hires.

“If you take that little bit of time and extra effort to train somebody from one of these unique populations that haven’t had exposure or haven’t had a chance, they will be so loyal and they will work so hard, because you’ve given them that opportunity,” said Melissa Stirling, senior director for Hilton Worldwide’s military and youth programs.

Building the future of the industry

Fostering an environment in which all employees can succeed helps build loyalty, but it also has larger implications for the future of the industry as a whole.

“When young people come to work for us we realize they may not work for us forever, but we want to help them with high school, we want to help them with college, we want to help them navigate the next steps for them, whatever that is,” Tijerina said. McDonald’s provides high school diploma completion assistance and college tuition assistance through its Archways to Opportunity program. While some employees use these tools as a stepping stone to careers in other industries, they can also help build up the next generation of restaurant industry leaders.

“The number of stories I have in my own company of people who started as cashiers or cooks and are now leading restaurants as general managers or directors of operations or even vice presidents within our company are countless,” FitzRandolph said. “This is a great opportunity for those who are going to take us into the future.”

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