The restaurant staffing shortage is about to get much worse

New research says one half of existing restaurant employees may leave the industry by January 1.

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empty restaurant patio
Photo: David Zorrakino/Europa Press (Getty Images)

It’s clear that service industry jobs aren’t exactly coveted these days. With more and more restaurant workers leaving the industry, even corporate staffers at some restaurants are being asked to jump in on the line to help out. But now, even more people are leaving the restaurant industry in pursuit of better jobs; Restaurant Business Magazine reports that the current restaurant worker shortage is likely to get worse, and possibly dramatically so.

The RBR article cites online job marketplace Joblist, which performed a survey of 13,659 wage earners and found that 58% of restaurant and hotel employees plan to quit their jobs by the end of the year. Obviously, surveys don’t always reflect industries as a whole, but this is an indication that many service employees can’t take their jobs much longer.

The researchers have even gone so far as to nickname the current situation “The Great Resignation.” All in all, it looks like a quarter of service workers have left or are planning to leave the service industry permanently. The main motivator seems to be job dissatisfaction. Before the pandemic, 15% of survey respondents said they were dissatisfied with their jobs, and now that number has doubled.

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“Such extreme levels of employee dissatisfaction will likely lead to a wave of resignations in the near future,” the Joblist survey reads. “This is a strong signal that the labor shortage affecting the hospitality industry might get worse before it gets better, as increased turnover exacerbates an already difficult hiring environment for employers.”

Of course, pay has plenty to do with it, too. Of the 25% of hospitality workers who said they’re finished with their industry jobs, the main source of unhappiness came from low wages. Other reasons for leaving the industry included a desire for a new career (50%), no benefits (39%), shitty customers (38%), long hours and inflexible schedules (34%), and possible exposure to COVID-19 in the workplace (23%). Others have said that they want to get a better education, with 11% of respondents saying they’ve either joined training programs for jobs elsewhere, or that they’ve gone back to school.

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But, all that being said, employee retention is still possible. Per the survey results, if current employers were to work on improving sources of unhappiness (such as pay), a third of those people wanting to quit their jobs would consider staying.

I’ve had some personal experience with this issue. As much as I loved my time in a restaurant kitchen as a pizzamaker, it was never a viable long-term career for me. There really wasn’t an option to move up unless I wanted to move up to become a kitchen manager, which pays marginally better (but comes with huge amounts of added stress and longer hours), or if I had aspirations to open my own place (I don’t). And so I never expected to stay in the industry.

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That being said, I worked at a fantastic restaurant, which had a better working environment than most. But still, coming in every day to uncomfortable stress levels was difficult. There was the wear and tear on my body, and the very real possibility of constant injury floating over my head. Of course, there was the pay issue, too. Until we started splitting tips, I was having a difficult time getting by. It felt like there was no way out.

My gut feeling is that yes, more people will leave the industry, leaving some restaurants in a pretty tough situation. But the ones going out of their way calling restaurant employees “lazy” are probably the reason why people are quitting to begin with.