This year SpongeBob turns 21. Twenty-one and he’s still happily flipping patties at his local burger joint. A generation has grown up with this lively little fast-food worker who has an eternally optimistic outlook on life, even when orders start piling up and the job feels…overwhelming.
But that’s fiction. In real life, few dream of a career in fast food we’re guessing.
Instead, today’s fast-food scene looks more like this: A handwritten strike notice taped on the door that reads, “WE ALL QUIT. SORRY FOR THE INCONVENIENCE.” No demands, just burgers sitting half-made on countertops, headsets on the ground and a drive-thru backed up to the street.
You see, COVID has fueled the fire of workers’ dissatisfaction, leading to staff shortages, and forcing a major reckoning for an industry in crisis, without enough people to do the jobs. And while the number of these small-scale store walkouts is not tracked by the Bureau of Labor, Mike Elk, a labor reporter and founder of paydayreport.com, has a database of 1,600 walkouts since March 2020 that includes as many as 100,000 workers.
“We have no AC," said McDonald's employee Carlos Marquez on NBC in mid-November. "We have to work 16 hours a day. And we're tired. And sometimes we have to work seven days a week."
Which is why before the pandemic, turning over roughly 100 percent of employees each year was considered good by quick-service restaurant standards. As labor problems escalated even before the pandemic, however, it was common for quick-service restaurants to have turnover rates of 130 percent and above. That’s losing everyone in your workforce every year, and then losing some who you hired as replacements.
So why the extreme exodus? First off, in order to create turnover-proof jobs, fast-food roles are standardized into simple routines robbed of any real skill. The model relies on a constant supply of replaceable workers, strengthening the belief that there’s no career future for those at the frontline of the quick-service restaurant. And when an employee feels their job is temporary, where and what’s the motivation to work?
The stigma tied to a fast-food career needs to be eliminated. Nothing will lure an employee to stay if they can’t see a future—or worse if the future they see is full of disrespectful treatment.
Getting Past Temporary and Into Rewarding Career Territory
So how would you change the perception of potential employees and get them to believe that QSR work is not just a waystation but beyond that, a resume builder?
In a recent third quarter earnings call, McDonald’s CEO Chris Kempcsinski was stymied. “I was hoping and expecting that we’re going to see the situation improve, maybe a little bit more quickly than what’s materialized,” he said. And specifically, he went on to characterize the staffing environment in the U.S. as “very challenging.”
But the key to attracting the next generation of workers seems to lie in improving communication, training, and opportunities for flexibility and advancement. And several companies outside the quick-service restaurant space are thinking creatively about how they can challenge and inspire their workforce beyond their everyday duties.
For example, Levi’s introduced an eight-week Machine Learning Bootcamp for employees that trained more than 40 employees, 63 percent of whom were female, representing 14 locations worldwide. Levi’s pulled employees from all levels, including frontline retail stores, distribution centers and data centers. Its Machine Learning Bootcamp is a fully paid program that aims to promote more agile thinking and increase the use of technology and data throughout the organization, to solve the problems frontline workers face daily. Levi’s hacked the system to uniquely empower frontline employees, broadening the possibilities for future careers in the process.
Several years ago, Prudential also launched an AI-powered skills-training platform that has become a foundational component of the company’s Talent Marketplace. The platform identifies skills gaps and needs within the company, provides training, and matches new skill sets with internal mobility opportunities for their existing talent. The training platform is complemented by apprenticeships to enhance on-the-job learning and further generate a robust talent pipeline.
Under this approach, Prudential employees have logged well over 100,000 hours of training during the pandemic. In the past six months alone, they have received more than 5,000 internal applicants for open positions, more than half of which have been filled with their existing talent. Prudential has created a path forward for employees to discover new skills and growth.
Indeed, a recent report found 40 percent of the world’s 2.7 billion frontline workers receive training once a year or less. But training is how employers invest in their employees, and when that investment happens only once, employees feel unrecognized and undervalued.
Internal communications are not only a basic element in shaping a positive work environment, but they’re also a key to sustaining growth. Until now, companies engaged the frontline workforce through traditional physical communications such as bulletin boards, paper-based processes, and printed newsletters. As internal comms has become digital, many frontline workers are lost through lack of access to work email or a computer, preventing companies from effectively reaching them. However, a recent study found that six out of 10 frontline workers use a mobile device at work, and seven out of 10 say app-based training would make it easier for them to learn.
While higher wages, health care, tuition reimbursement, and scheduling flexibility, are just the basics quick-service restaurant employers need to offer, restaurants trying to attract talent by providing only basic benefits are fooling themselves. Currently, quick-service restaurants are even having to pay potential employees to interview, which is unsustainable.
So, companies need to rethink what it means to take a job in fast food. Culturally, people are shifting their work expectations, reimagining their careers, and leaving their employers behind. quick-service restaurants need to break the cycle, really understand the human issues, and create fundamental change to provide the vision for a viable future career in their sector.
But back to SpongeBob. While his primary occupation for 21 years has been as a happy fry cook, he’s actually had a wide breadth of job experiences. From lawyer to newspaper editor, caped crusader to karate teacher (with aspirations of being a race car driver), and yet even he has bigger dreams. So, the secret to keeping him -- or any of your employees -- long-term, is to help them feel understood, supported, challenged, and valued. Square pants or otherwise.
Sean Boutchard is a senior strategist at WONGDOODY and the strategic lead for one of the company’s largest Experience Led Commerce clients. Over the course of his career, his insights have transformed experiences for Microsoft, PlayStation, Aston Martin, IHG, and AT&T.