Teen Workers Making Up Smaller Proportion of Restaurant Labor

Photo by Vincent Desjardins, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

A series of new reports from the National Restaurant Association (NRA) confirms several of the trends that have been driving labor concerns among operators in recent years. Mainly, fewer teenagers are interested in restaurant jobs and operators are looking to older workers to fill the labor gap.

Those findings come even as the number of teenagers working restaurant jobs has grown. About 1.7 million teens were employed in a restaurant in 2018, the highest number since 2007. That uptick is important to note as teenagers have traditionally made up a significant percentage of the restaurant industry’s workforce. However, the participation rate of teenagers in the overall workforce has fallen from 52 percent in 2010 to 35 percent today, resulting in 2.5 million fewer teen workers across all industries. That has especially impacted restaurants, which employ one-third of all working teens, more than any other industry, according to the NRA.

The number of teenagers working in restaurants has rebounded from a low of 1.32 million in 2010 to pre-recession levels, but the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that young people will make up an increasingly smaller proportion of the total labor market, with the number of teens in the labor force declining by 600,000 and the number of 20- to 24-years-olds falling by 700,000 between 2016 and 2026.

The decline in teenager workers was a trend noted by Steve Chucri, president and CEO of the Arizona Restaurant Association, during his speech at the FEDA Annual Conference in April. “Millennials don’t want to do this. Millennials don’t want to wash dishes,” he said. “You’re going to see more of the elderly play a role in our industry.”

The data so far shows that Chucri is right. The NRA found that the number of adults age 55 or older rose 70 percent between 2007 and 2018 — an increase of 400,000 people. Before the recession, teenagers in the restaurant industry outnumber 55-plus workers three-to-one. These days, there are only two teen workers for every restaurant employee 55 or older, signaling a shift toward more seasoned workers.

While the number of teenagers entering the workforce is dropping, the BLS predicts that 5.3 million adults age 65 or older will enter the labor force between 2016 and 2026. The composition of the restaurant industry workforce is likely to evolve accordingly, the NRA said.

At the same time workforce demographics are changing, there continues to be a demand for more workers. Restaurants are expected to add 515,000 jobs this summer, according to the NRA’s 21st annual Eating and Drinking Place Summer Employment Forecast. Those added jobs are the result of higher demand during the traditionally busier time of year, with the bulk of the hiring occurring at seasonal businesses. About one-in-six eating and drinking businesses operate on a seasonal basis, the NRA said, many of which are only open during the summer.

Although this will be the seventh consecutive year that the restaurant industry is adding more than a half-million jobs in summer, the 515,000 figure is down from 542,000 in 2018. The NRA cites higher labor costs and a more competitive labor market as primary factors for that decline.

The tightening labor market and higher minimum wages were two of the pressures on operators Chucri mentioned during the FEDA Annual Conference. The solution for many, he said, would be to invest in new technologies that will allow for more efficient restaurants with smaller kitchen and front-of-the-house staffs. It’s an area were distributors and dealers of foodservice equipment have an opportunity to make an impact by providing solutions like automatic fryers and burger flippers. “We will turn to automation,” he said. “Why? Because the industry is entrepreneurial.”