Summer has come and gone, and with it goes a significant portion of the 2.1 million teens who worked a job in the accommodation and food services sector this summer.

As high school and college students head back to the classroom this fall, some summer employers are left scrambling to fill their places. But with one of the healthiest economies in years, staffing up will be neither quick nor simple.

Restaurant shift managers and other shift-based employers seeking to fill gaps by hiring new talent may also run into heavier competition for workers who have an increasing set of opportunities working with gig economy companies.

Many gig roles have age requirements that exclude students from qualification, but workers who have historically filled in once school starts may find these opportunities more appealing than typical shift-based work. So how can hourly employers rebound this fall?

Managing the back-to-school talent exodus

One option shift employers can pursue when competing with the gig economy is to offer more scheduling flexibility. Though shift-based employers may find it difficult to match the flexibility that gig work offers, traditional scheduling practices may provide some room for improvement if management teams and location managers are committed to change.

Gig economy companies’ advantage doesn’t just lie in their use of contingent labor, though. Many have also leveraged technology to optimize the hiring and onboarding process in ways that shift employers do not—often simply because younger companies can more nimbly design or modify hiring processes and systems to adopt new technology. Research suggests that the average gig economy employer’s time-to-hire is 10 days, whereas the average food service employer takes 30. 

With departing student talent and hot competition from the gig economy, quick-service restaurants can take a few steps to fill the back-to-school gap.

Simplify hiring—To attract new talent, start by lowering the barrier to entry. Shift employers often ask candidates to fill out lengthy applications, then wait weeks before a hiring manager contacts them for an in-person interview. Your application form should be straightforward and mobile-friendly, only asking for the necessities—this is not the time for a bunch of short answer questions. After a candidate submits an application, an automated communication tool can analyze it and follow up almost immediately. If a candidate doesn’t meet the basic qualifications for the job, the employer can notify them right away with an automated message. If they do meet the qualifications, the platform can reach out and ask the candidate to select a time to interview, or even provide instructions to submit a video interview. By allowing technology to move the process forward, hiring becomes more efficient and solid candidates don’t fall through the cracks.

Consider automation—When restaurants find themselves with a lack of labor on the front lines after summer workers depart, they can reconsider which elements may not even need a human to complete. Touchscreen ordering is increasingly commonplace in any fast casual restaurant these days. In rare instances, restaurants are even turning to robots to handle kitchen operations—a practice that is expected to grow in years to come. While incorporating automation into quick-service restaurant workflows requires a long-term investment and digital transformation effort, it could be a worthy move for your establishment if meeting customer needs continues to be a struggle due to low staffing.

Turn to contract labor—Contract labor hasn’t traditionally played a large role in fast casual restaurant operations, but similar to adding technology to the mix, leaders can ask if any elements of work might fit better with contract labor. Increasingly, a set of technology companies are helping restaurants plug short-term gaps in staffing. Third-party companies who can bring contractors can make it easy to scale the labor force up or down depending on need—something you can’t do with shift labor. Instead of using hourly employers to make food deliveries, your team can turn to one of the many food delivery apps to outsource your delivery needs. Rather than relying on hourly employees for all in-house cleaning needs, you could consider an outsourced cleaning company or contractors so that your shift workers can focus completely on providing a good experience to customers. By outsourcing parts of the normal hourly worker’s jobs, you gain quick access to the staffing you need without paying more or going through the process of recruiting.

Hiring and retaining talent is harder now than ever due to a thriving job market and low unemployment. As shift schedules become hard to fill thanks to departing student labor, restaurant shift employers will have to take action to staff back up, whether that’s through hourly labor, contract labor or technology.

Micah Rowland is the chief operating officer at Fountain. He brings an extensive and far-reaching background to Fountain. Before joining the team last September, he worked at companies like Starbucks in branding and strategy and McKinsey’s business and economics research arm, McKinsey Global Institute (MGI), in labor and economics trends. Fountain has helped clients hire and onboard nearly one million applicants each month across 50 countries since its inception four years ago.

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