The average age of an hourly restaurant employee is now between 25 and 30 years old. This is a different picture from just a few years ago, pre-Recession, when the teenager working the cashier was a legitimate typecast.
The aging workforce has been a good thing for the restaurant industry, according to Patrice Rice, president, founder and CEO of hospitality recruiting firm Patrice & Associates. And, vice versa.
"The average age is about 27 now and that is really a post-Recession number. Before, college grads could get a job no matter their degree. Sources for people with college degrees have dried up and it's the restaurant industry that has continued to provide that opportunity," Rice said. "And for restaurants, they have the opportunity to work with people who have that extra five to 10 years of maturity, rather than having to rely entirely on 16 year olds."
And even if a restaurant job may not have been part of the plan in pursuit of their college degree, that doesn't mean there aren't big opportunities available for these older employees.
"Employees with college degrees will do well. They'll come in as an hourly worker and be put into a manager-in-training program. These are the people who have tried to get a job and so they're willing to work the hours. These are the ones who have an excellent shot at making a career out of it," Rice said. "The hospitality industry is the only industry left in America where you can start as a busboy and work your way up to general manager and make six figures if you put in the work."
As restaurants get more employees with higher education backgrounds, training shifts toward management advancement. Conversely, Rice said younger, high school-aged employees may be more focused on learning the cash register, fry station and other day-to-day duties.
"It's worth paying a little extra money to reduce turnover costs and training for older workers. If you can give them an obtainable career path and spell it out for them, they're less likely to leave," she added.
In addition to outlining career paths, older employees also want to be a person of value within the company.
"A lot of hourlies at restaurants feel like they're just a number in a revolving door, but they want to feel value and respect. They want their opinions to matter now," Rice said. To provide them with that opportunity, she suggests:
- Be hands on, not a clipboard manager. Don't ask them to do something you wouldn't do.
- Do it with them. Don't tell them from afar, "Here's how you do it." "You're the role model. If it's too good for you to do, why is it OK for them to do it?" Rice said.
- Have team contests. "If you don't want them to leave for 25 more cents at the restaurant down the street, make them feel like part of a team," Rice said.
- Incentivize them so they feel a sense of accomplishment.
Disadvantages to the aging workforce?
Although few, there are some disadvantages to the aging hourly workforce, Rice points out. Namely, many of these job seekers likely have higher salary expectations right away, or came from a higher-paid job and were laid off.
"People who used to have high paying jobs will often use this as an interim position while they're still interviewing, which will add to the turnover rate," Rice said.
Also, the current wave of minimum wage protests tends to come from employees with families.
"The minimum wage protests are coming from a group of employees with entitlement, not from those who want to learn and grow with the career. These entry-level positions aren't meant to support a four-person family," Rice said, adding that those who have been stuck at the same wages for long periods of time should have been placed in a management-in-training program by now.
"Other than that, it's a win-win for the restaurant operators and older employees. Restaurants get more mature employees are going to be on time, who want to work for that paycheck. And employees are grateful to have that job after maybe having suffered through a number of job losses. They are grateful to be given a chance again," Rice said. "Thank goodness there is an industry where someone can start over."
Rice, who has been in the hospitality industry for a quarter of a century, said there are two major things that have changed in those 20-plus years: One, QSR has changed to include equal younger employees and older, more mature employees with key responsibilities; and two, the 60 to 70 hour work weeks are gone.
"There are some chains and operators that still want you to work six or more days. They will not get the top people because those employees want an opportunity, but still want a quality of life," Rice said. "To attract the top talent, you need to show them the career path, an end goal, responsibility and a quality of life."
Read more about staffing and training.
Photo provided by Flickr user Spot Us.
Alicia has been a professional journalist for 15 years. Her work with FastCasual.com, QSRweb.com and PizzaMarketplace.com has been featured in publications around the world, including NPR, Good Morning America, Voice of Russia radio, Consumerist.com and Franchise Asia magazine.