Employment is a revolving door in the fast-food industry, and the pandemic only made things worse. Staffing shortages in the last few years have caused loss of productivity, forced restaurants to cut down on hours, and left them no choice but to limit their service options. In 2021, a whopping 86.3% of accommodation and foodservice workers quit their jobs.
Most fast-food brands employ people younger than 25. Attracting a younger workforce can be especially difficult; there’s little wiggle room in terms of wages and it’s often hot, unglamorous work. For this reason, it’s imperative to know how to tap into the new generation that already makes up more than 12% of the country’s workforce.
As a manager at Wendy’s for the last five years and a member of the Gen Z generation myself, I have learned that recruiting and keeping young talent is just as much about making them feel valued as it is about offering incentives. In my experience, simple, small, thoughtful changes can lead to big results. It’s one of the reasons my location had the lowest turnover in 2021 out of three-dozen stores in the Pacific Northwest.
Here are a few ways you can attract and retain Gen Z workers.
Offer referral bonuses
This simple incentive has proven to pay dividends. In the height of the pandemic, many fast-food restaurants began offering referral and retention bonuses. Chipotle, for example, offered $200 for a referral of a crew member and up to $750 for a general manager.
Offering referral bonuses can help incentivize employees to choose your business over the competition. And there’s an added bonus of being able to work with their friends — a win/win!
Promote flexible hours
The pandemic shifted many jobs to become remote-first, which only makes it harder to recruit for in-person positions. We learned that offering flexible hours can significantly help attract younger employees who may be juggling school and sports activities.
Placing college students on a leave of absence so they can return during holidays and breaks and commit to several shifts can actually make a huge difference when turnover is high. As someone who has made our employee schedule for over a year, I’ll admit that flexible schedules can make the task harder, but it still outweighs being severely short-staffed by a long way.
You can also post open shifts online and let employees choose which shift works best for them on a first-come, first-serve basis, and let them swap with one another.
Promote a safe, fun work culture
Establishing a positive work culture cannot be over emphasized. People, regardless of age, have choices of where they want to spend their time, so unless you create a positive environment, employees are going to find somewhere else to work.
Creating that ideal work environment starts at the top, so make sure your managers are facilitating a safe, friendly atmosphere. Training is particularly important too; when someone is trained properly, they will feel more confident, which will help them succeed. This requires patience and positive reinforcement — even when times are really busy.
Remember, for many Gen Z employees, this may be their first job. Offering a little extra guidance, patience, and kindness will go a long way. If you’re making them perform a mundane task, explain why that task is so important for the health of the business. Understanding their overall role in the system reduces friction and promotes a feeling of responsibility.
Get creative on how to motivate
In some cases, providing a competitive wage may be difficult, so you need to think outside the box. Some of the things you can do to motivate employees are really quite simple and cost effective.
For example, at the Wendy’s location I manage, we have a live ranking of the drive-thru speed at the different locations in our franchise, and we try to be the fastest store at the top of the leaderboard. While this may sound simple, this healthy competition created a sense of camaraderie among our employees, making something potentially tedious feel fun. (It increased our drive-thru speed times too!)
I also give out Wendy’s pins to employees who go above and beyond. Employees can put those pins on their hats to display the recognition they received to coworkers and customers. Again, something small can make someone feel valued.
At the end of the day, your employees are your biggest investment. In the next few years, many of my Gen Z colleagues will be entering the workforce. Spending a little extra time to train and support us is worth it in the long run.
Stephanie Massart is a manager at Wendy’s in Washington State and marketing consultant at Zenput, the leading operations execution platform for multi-unit restaurants, convenience stores, and grocers. Zenput is used in over 60,000 locations in more than 100 countries by top brands, including Domino's, Chipotle, P.F. Chang's, Five Guys, KFC, Smart & Final, and Global.