It’s a trend well-known to restaurant operators, and yet each year brings the same scramble: young people who provided a ready supply of flexible labor over the summer simultaneously change their patterns – resigning to focus on school, moving back to college, or limiting their availability to accommodate other activities. In 2021, for example, 36.6 percent of teens 16-19 had jobs during the summer, dropping to 30.5 percent during the school year.
This hits the food service industry especially hard, as teen workers fill 1.2 million of those positions, in the ballpark of 20 percent of all employees in the field.
As a 35-year industry veteran who has worked every job in quick service restaurants, I understand the pain and frustration of this perennial problem. Looking at this seasonal challenge with that lens, the good news for both owners and students is that there are opportunities to close the gap.
Part of a Larger Trend
First, it’s worth realizing that the landscape for teenage employment has changed a lot over the past decade-plus. Even before COVID the number of teen student workers overall has been declining for years. In 2000, 30 percent of teens enrolled in school has jobs; today the number is under 20. Even as QSR employment needs grow (over five million fast-food positions in the US as of 2023) , this important pool of workers is shrinking.
Although the reasons for the shift are complex, anecdotally the people I know and work with cite an increase in extracurricular activities competing for students’ time, especially during the school year; and a de-valuation of employment among teens and their families.
Succeeding despite those headwinds takes a special effort, especially during back-to-school when the trends are most pronounced. But it’s not impossible.
Tips for Restaurant Owners and Managers
The first advice, or course, is plan ahead. The back-to-school blip is perennial and happens every year, yet I still see owners who have a hard time shifting gears and adjusting staff (or making plans to do so) in July and August. Beyond that, I suggest four areas to focus on:
- Build Culture: You need to be the kind of place teens want to work. Look at your environment and employees with fresh eyes and emphasize doing things right. People with an excellence mindset want to work in jobs that also promote excellence. You’ll get more motivated and loyal people if your culture is positive and relevant. Likewise, teens want to be places popular with teens. Engage with local schools or try hosting teen-friendly events.
- Don’t Fall on Your Sword Over Inflexible Rules: Managers and owners have their way of doing things. I often hear things like “If they can’t work weekends, I don’t want them.” But it might be worth being flexible – modern scheduling tools make it easier to win at “calendar Tetris.” Hard-working teens are balancing more than ever today. It’s worth adapting to attract the best of them.
- Take Advantage of Technology: In addition to scheduling, QSR technology has grown immensely in scope and capability. Today we help owners look at wages and staffing across dozens of locations to ensure the right wage is offered at the right restaurant. We make benefits easier to deploy and manage. We offer pay-on-demand and other tools that teens like. Technology is a secret weapon in your staffing arsenal.
- Get Creative: Try new things! I’m seeing more innovative ways to attract labor, like sponsoring a local school’s football team as long as a number of players take jobs at a location. Others offer special wages for hard-to-staff shifts. Events, promotions, and unique experiences for employees can increase your appeal.
Of course, it takes two to tango when hiring. It needs to be a good fit for employer and employee. Speaking to teens and parents, I would encourage them to shop around and check out the vibe at potential employers to find a place the teen can be excited about. When talking schedules, make commitments you can keep.
And finally, take a broader view of the job. It’s not just about the money: A job can also be an education for teens, where they learn responsibility, communication, and how to advocate for themselves.