Fast-food establishments are the primary industry segment that’s returning to pre-pandemic sales, even despite the prediction that the overall restaurant industry will accrue losses of up to $240 billion by the end of the year, In fact, some quick-service restaurants have experienced record growth, sales and share prices, and began seeing positive same-store sales growth as early as mid-May, according to industry tracker Black Box Intelligence.

As the segment’s sales bounce back, companies need to continue investing in their employees and prepare for what comes next. Corporate-funded education is the kind of long-term investment that builds employee engagement, promotes retention and ensures more opportunities for employees’ futures. These opportunities also deliver measurable business value and social impact outcomes that benefit quick-serves.

Education provides life-changing, long-term value

Investment in education enables individual employees to achieve success while also bolstering a company’s bottom line as the result of an upskilled, dedicated workforce. A Lumina Foundation report found that for every dollar spent on workforce education, the organization recouped it and saved an additional $1.29 in talent management costs—a 129 percent ROI. So, the value of workforce education lies not only in its inherent benefit for companies but also in the personal impact it can have for employees.

For example, the Starbucks College Achievement Plan (SCAP) with Arizona State University launched in 2014 to provide eligible Starbucks partners (employees) an opportunity to earn their first bachelor’s degree at no cost to them. Currently, over 4,700 people have graduated from the program, earning their degrees while working.

Furthermore, 75 percent of Starbucks stores have at least one partner in the program and the promotion rate of SCAP retail participants is three times that of non-participating partners. Starbucks also notes that nearly 20 percent of new job candidates cite SCAP as one of their primary reasons for applying to work at the company.

Why quick-service restaurants should invest more in strategic education programs

There’s no question restaurant brands need to fight hard to recruit, hire, and retain their employees. So companies should consider who their employees are and what quality educational opportunities mean to them.

Millennials care about education opportunities more than pay raises: The average age of quick-service employees is 29 years old and 31 percent of them have at least attempted college, according to the National Employment Law Project. For these millennials, learning and development opportunities are top factors when applying and staying at a job, with 87 percent rating career growth and development as important. This is an important consideration for quick-service restaurant employers who run into tightly regulated pay caps. Offering quality educational opportunities is a creative and compelling way for brands to invest in and retain their employees while navigating pay constraints.

Employee engagement and retention: Even prior to the coronavirus pandemic, the quick-service industry was facing significant labor challenges. These issues include understaffed restaurants, low engagement scores and a high turnover rate. In the quick-service industry, employee turnover runs as high as 130–150 percent, according to industry measures. Fast-food and fast-casual restaurants have the highest turnover rate in the U.S. restaurant industry, and it is even higher than the retail industry. Offering high-quality educational opportunities for employees represent an important, proven way to improve workforce engagement and skills, while keeping employees  motivated and loyal.

Varied and customized learning paths to success: Offering a varied program and course mix provides a pathway for every learner to develop the skills they need to help a business succeed. Short- and long-term credentials can include professional skill-building courses, high school diplomas, bachelor’s and master’s degrees, and certificates, as well as other alternative admissions pathways.

In the quick-service industry, about 25 percent of the frontline workforce dropped out of high school before earning their diploma. For many employees, workforce education programs such as Checkers & Rally’s Restaurants’ Career Online High School (COHS) program and online ESL program are the first steps to educational attainment and career advancement. Based on preliminary research conducted for restaurant and retail organizations offering COHS, positive results include:

  • 92 percent of graduates gained skills and knowledge that helped in their jobs
  • Employee retention doubled at participating companies and favorable opinions of employers increased nearly 70 percent
  • 98 percent of graduates would recommend the program to others
  • More than half of employees who earned their high school diploma through COHS were promoted within six months of completing the program


Actionable tips to get started

Workforce education programs can deliver significant benefits—from improved employee engagement and retention, to skills development that creates a more adaptable and innovative workforce. But to get the most out of these programs, it’s crucial to take a strategic approach.

Here is a three-point checklist for creating or expanding a workforce education program.

Identify your business goals and skill gaps: In order to achieve success, there needs to be strategic alignment between educational programs, learning outcomes and business objectives. So, start by gaining clarity on business goals that need to be addressed and determining which skills employees need most—both today and in the future.

Create a customized workforce education program: Consider the educational delivery format. Companies looking to uplevel employees’ critical thinking skills or develop expertise in emerging areas are often best served by providing education opportunities such as high-school completion, short-form credentials, or associate, bachelor or graduate degree programs.

Execute with expert guidance: Select a partner with expertise in administering effective strategic workforce education programs—from program implementation and tracking results, to providing resources that help every learner succeed through their education journey.

By taking a strategic approach to develop or expand a workforce education program, QSRs can shape a program from a “nice-to-have” into something that drives lasting positive business ROI and social impact. Additionally, QSR employees gain access to employer-provided education opportunities that bolster lifelong learning, promote positive change and transform lives.

Vivek Sharma is the CEO of InStride, a strategic enterprise education company, helping employers achieve business growth through career-boosting online education to their employees, in partnership with leading global universities across the U.S., Mexico, Europe and Australia. He has extensive experience in building and growing profitable businesses through the application of digital technology.

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