The typical quick-service worker often brings to mind gangly teenagers eagerly earning their first real pocket money. But according to the National Restaurant Association’s (NRA) 2016 Restaurant Industry Forecast, the number of teenagers in the restaurant workforce decreased by 4 percent from 2007 to 2014. The decline is projected to continue, and older workers are going to fill the gap. By 2024, restaurant workers over 65 years old are going to increase by 5.1 percent, and workers ages 35–44 are going to increase by 3.5 percent.
“What’s going on with society reflects itself in the restaurant industry,” says Hudson Riehle, senior vice president of the NRA’s Research and Knowledge Group.
Americans are getting older and often need supplemental income. Additionally, it’s no longer uncommon for adults to have more than one career. Many 35–44-year-olds in the midst of career changes can find fulfilling work in the restaurant industry while returning to college, or turn the restaurant work into a second career.
That’s exactly what happened to John Varela, who turned to Starbucks after spending 10 years in the nonprofit world. While he enjoyed his nonprofit work, which included running children’s programs through a religious organization, he had run out of room to grow there. He’d started a family and knew he needed a change. In 2012, Varela became a barista at a Starbucks in Tucson, Arizona, and today he is a store manager. He recently graduated from Arizona State University with a degree in organizational studies and leadership, which he obtained with the help of the Starbucks College Achievement Plan.
Starbucks is more than a transitional job for Varela; he feels a deep connection with the company and considers many of his coworkers inspirational mentors. He adds that he’s healthier now because of all the standing and moving around. Learning drink recipes and how to modify them on the spot keeps him sharp. “In an office environment, you can shelve a problem. At Starbucks, you need to solve problems in the moment,” he says.
It’s no wonder that people like Varela, as well as older adults, are turning to foodservice. Restaurant jobs are ubiquitous across the U.S., and the industry is expanding at a moderate pace, according to the NRA’s research. The NRA surveys restaurants monthly, and Riehle says recruitment and retention of staff are emerging as top challenges for the restaurant community overall.
Restaurants provide flexible hours that allow people like Varela to be parents and return to school, while older adults can enjoy a more leisurely retirement pace of life while earning extra income. The NRA reports that two out of five restaurant workers over age 35 have worked in the industry before. That previous engagement with the industry can be a draw for both senior and second-career workers.
That was the case with Varela, who worked at Starbucks when he was 19. “Throughout my career in the nonprofit world, I’d use Starbucks as an example of great customer service,” he says. When it was time to change careers, Varela says, returning to Starbucks was a “no brainer.”
There have been challenges for Varela. After climbing to a high position in the nonprofit world, he says, he had to keep his pride in check when he was suddenly at the same level as much younger coworkers. Over the years, however, Varela came to learn from the young employees who were especially quick or good at social media.
More experienced workers like Varela bring unique traits to the table that can impress restaurant operators and enhance the business.
“I know exactly what my boundaries are and what I’m capable of. I’ve tested my limits. I know my style, my ability to delegate, my ability to follow up, and my ability to be a strong independent worker for my manager,” Varela says. “I also know when to ask for help. Newer workers are still figuring these things out.”
Senior workers, the group that is going to increase by 5.1 percent in the restaurant industry in the next decade, bring many of the same advantages. Swathi Ravichandran is a professor of hospitality at Kent State University and studies older workers in the foodservice industry. Because of years of experience dealing with people and being in difficult situations both in life and work, senior workers tend to excel at customer relations, Ravichandran says. They’re reliable and cheerful.
Furthermore, research has shown that senior workers have fewer accidents and make fewer mistakes on the job than younger employees; older workers tend to be more meticulous in their work. Ravichandran adds that older workers “generate a positive image, have the ability to learn as well as younger workers, are motivated, have self discipline, have respect for authority, and they’re happier and more satisfied.”
In fact, all of the older workers Ravichandran interviewed for her most recent study stated that they were happy and wanted to stay with their employer as long as possible.
The motivation for senior workers is often less about financial benefits and more about the intangible perks; they want to stay active, be involved in a community, and enjoy social interaction. Restaurants allow them to meet new people every day. They’re also eager to mentor younger employees and share the lessons they’ve learned, Ravichandran says.
Unfortunately, younger workers don’t always appreciate what older workers can offer. Ravichandran says these environments can be rampant with age bias.
“An old study shows that there’s an objective increase in performance with age, but surveyed people said there was a decrease,” she says.
The stereotype that older workers are bad with technology is common, but Ravichandran has found it largely baseless—so long as older workers are trained properly. She says that, overall, older workers have no problem with technology in the workplace and are happy to see it incorporated into restaurants.
>Ravichandran and her colleagues recommend that employers let senior workers learn the technology at their own pace and incorporate online training exercises. This allows employees to get instant feedback and make sure they’ve mastered the skill before they move onto the next module.