Web Exclusive | April 2014 | By Mary Avant

It's Hiring Time

Summer hiring outlook strong for quick-service operators.

Quick service restaurants hire summer workers for popular seasonal job.
Fast casual Slim Chickens sees a lot of transition in its employee base in the summer, as many of its workers are college students.
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On the heels of the latest jobs report, which revealed that restaurants added more than 30,000 jobs in March—the 49th consecutive month of growth for the industry—limited-service operators are well positioned for the incoming summer season.

Snagajob’s 2014 Summer Hiring Survey, which interviewed 250 employers responsible for hiring hourly employees in the foodservice, hospitality, and retail industries, shows that the number of employed 16–24-year-olds is set to increase by more than 2 million this summer, with the limited-service industry benefiting from a sizeable chunk of those seasonal employees.

Though many of Snagajob’s Summer Hiring Survey findings stayed fairly consistent between 2013 and 2014, including in categories like percentage of hiring employers (74 percent) and number of people employers expect to hire for the summer season (25, on average), one notable difference has emerged over previous years: The number of return hires is falling, paving the way for first-time workers to fill their shoes this summer.

“Last year, about 50 percent of the seasonal hires were returning workers. This year, that’s down to about 20 percent,” says Jason Hamilton, vice president of marketing for Snagajob. Because the restaurant industry has experienced healthy growth over the last several years, the continued growth has opened up opportunities for employees, he says.

“So we’re seeing this year more people that would have been returning workers pursuing new opportunities,” Hamilton adds. “That’s opening the door for less-experienced workers or new workers to come in and take their place.”

The average wage for summer hires is expected to rise slightly above 2013 levels, from $10.30 to $10.39, with the foodservice industry averaging $10.43.

The timing for summer hiring has also shifted, Hamilton says, noting that in 2013, 50 percent of employers expected summer hires to be made by the end of April. “This year, only about 25 percent of hires are expected to be made by the end of April,” he says. “For people that are looking for jobs and have not started looking, they have a little time still to get that job that they want for summer.”

Summer is a peak season for many quick-service brands. Checkers and Rally’s, for example, thrive in the season because of the brands’ focus on patios and outdoor seating.

“We adjust our staffing levels based on the anticipated sales expectation,” writes Lori Malcolm, senior vice president of human resources for the quick-service concepts, in an email to QSR. “We use one team member per $1,000 in sales as a base.”

The season is also a transitional one for many industry employees, as younger workers come and go with summer vacation. That’s been the case for fast-casual chain Slim Chickens, a 13-unit concept with locations throughout Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Texas.

“We hire a lot of college kids, and typically a lot of those kids leave us in mid-May to go back home,” says Sam Rothschild, COO at Slim Chickens. “We have to start reviewing our staffing levels a few weeks ahead of time to start hiring and training their replacements, if necessary.”

The brand is fortunate, however, in that students who return home from other colleges can work for the restaurants in the summer, and fewer college students are going home now than in years past, says director of operations Josh Austin.

“Now we’re able to retain people and have the benefit of more long-term employees, and are not having that three-month break with that employee,” he says.

Because Slim Chickens isn’t difficult to execute or train staff for, Rothschild says, its stores are able to quickly recruit and prepare a seasonal workforce. “Of course, they’re maybe not as good as the long-term employees when it comes to proficiency, but when we hire the right folks, we can get them up to speed pretty quickly,” he says.

In fact, for the nearly 75 percent of employers surveyed by Snagajob who plan to hire seasonal staff, these companies and managers are looking less for experience than for positive, optimistic employees who also have a flexible schedule, Hamilton says.

“Those are the top two things that were identified by employers in our survey,” he says, adding that relevant work experience came in a distant third.

“I think there’s the perspective that if somebody has great work experience but doesn’t have a great attitude—especially in customer-facing roles—that does me no good,” Hamilton says. “But if I have somebody that has a great attitude, is super positive, interacts well with people, is going to drive return customers, [and] is going to drive higher sales, I can teach them everything they need to know.”

This is the mindset at Slim Chickens, Austin says.

“The experience is always a plus, but it’s never a final determining factor,” he says. “You’re looking for someone—especially for us, where customer service is a priority—who has the right attitude and is very customer service–focused.”

Though many employers are still concerned about the ways in which government regulations like health-care laws may affect staffing levels, Hamilton says, the majority of employers are more focused on the topic of minimum wage when it comes to summer hiring.

“We’ve done some polling of our employers and our job seekers about minimum wage, and there’s some insights there that can probably be applied to health care,” he says. “In general, minimum wage and the Affordable Health Care Act are viewed by some employers as increasing costs.”

When asked how they would deal with these increased costs for the upcoming summer season, 75 percent of respondents said they would pass these expenses on to consumers through menu price increases, rather than through staff cuts, Hamilton says.

In terms of wages, the Summer Hiring Survey found that the average wage for summer hires is expected to rise slightly above 2013 levels, from $10.30 to $10.39, with the foodservice industry averaging $10.43—a figure higher than the minimum-wage increases being proposed at the federal level.

At Checkers and Rally’s, employees—including seasonal hires—have an opportunity to earn performance-based wage increases, as well as to benefit from payout bonuses when a restaurant hits or exceeds sales targets, Malcolm says.

“Peak times, like the summer months, provide great opportunities to earn more,” she says.

Snagajob’s survey found that average summer wages vary by region, with the South closer to $9.60 and the West averaging $11.10.

“It’s surprising to me that it’s as high as it is, and I think that means that employers are not necessarily just hiring for those entry-level positions,” Hamilton says, adding that many employers are likely looking to fill or quickly promote employees into manager and shift supervisor positions for summer. “Or maybe the return workers that are coming back are just coming back to fill those higher-wage positions, whereas a lot of new hires are taking those lower-wage positions.”