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Workforce

Can’t you do better than ‘Help Wanted’?

Photograph: Shutterstock

Put down your peashooter for a moment to consider how weaponry has evolved in the battle for foodservice talent.

Restaurants, the perennial rival for key employees such as cooks, cashiers and line servers, have been griping for more than three decades about “Help Wanted” signs becoming permanent fixtures of their front windows. The only break came in the Great Recession, when their hiring pleas were replaced with “Going Out of Business” alerts. But even then, noncommercial foodservice had a tough time convincing potential hires to work inside the operations of hospitals, employee dining rooms and schools.

And now the competition is getting worse as restaurants have resumed their rapid expansion. For anyone in the foodservice business, hiring enough employees amid the rising demand has gone from impossible to ridiculous. Nearly 80% of quick-service places and virtually every full-service establishment is operating short-handed, according to the researcher TDn2K. We’re already seeing openings postponed and hours slashed because the staffing just isn’t there. 

No data is collected on the situation within noncommercial kitchens, but we’re betting the farm it's worse. 

The response of most operators has been to use stronger tape on their “Help Wanted” signs.  But a few forward-thinkers in the restaurant world are rethinking their pitches to prospective hires, as we discovered while trawling the recruitment pages of a dozen or so restaurant-chain websites. Here are a few of the broader trends we encountered that could work just as well for noncommercial operations.  

Go video:If you’re counting on static copy to tout your operation as a place to work, invest an hour in freeform YouTube surfing. It’ll be a Berlitz course of sorts on how to speak to today’s applicants. Video is the language of choice on nearly all the big-chain recruitment sites we visited (one notable exception: Chick-fil-A). Typically, it is the way they conveyed a sense of the culture, with particulars like benefits detailed in accompanying print. Even better, make real employees the stars. You’ll lessen risk of dorkiness, and gain credibility.

Promise fun: The deliverable most often promised in our slog through recruitment sites was having an enjoyable experience instead of slaving away in boredom. It’s not as if popular employers such as In-N-Out are glossing over the rigors of the job. Team members appearing in its recruitment video stress that the work is hard. But as one concludes in wrapping up the come-on, “You’ll have fun, I promise.” 

Brag about clocks running fast: One of the bigger surprises to come from our review was the number of restaurant employers who promised time will seem to fly by if you work there. That enticement might sound like a complement to the having-fun pitch, but it seems directed more at people who can’t stand the boredom of where they currently punch a clock.

Provide a life: Not dissimilarly, many of the restaurant sites promised a social life along with a paycheck. “All of the friends I have now I met at In-N-Out,” the star of that chain’s crew-level recruitment video croons. Adds another employee appearing in the clip, “We hang out at work, we hang out outside of work.” There’s a beneficial twist to that situation for noncommercial foodservice. One of the key advantages to working in that field is a closer proximation to 9 to 5 jobs, and weekends aren’t slam times in most segments. The ability to be with friends and family is an advantage the field often overlooks.

Tout the pay: Despite the increased promises of fun and friendship, restaurants aren’t overlooking the all-important consideration of what an applicant is likely to make. TDn2K, among other observers, has noted that wage and salary shopping has become more routine in a business where compensation was once relatively low on the list of reasons to take a job. Our spot check found considerably less coyness about pay. The recruitment video for Olive Garden, for instance, had employees confiding in would-be applicants, “The pay is awesome,” and “I make incredible money.” In-N-Out was even blunter, stating upfront in its clip that the chain’s starting wage is $11 an hour.

Offer careers, not jobs:  Finding a website’s recruitment section wasn’t always easy; the link was often buried in what amounted to the site map. But the terminology used to flag it was almost always the same. Specific job openings were mentioned on a few of the virtual HR offices, but more often the emphasis was on finding a career, a ladder with plenty of opportunity to climb upward. 

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