Taco Bell franchisee Steve Smith always looked forward to Memorial Day when dozens of teenagers would start applying for summer jobs.
During a large chunk of his 30-year franchisee career, 80 percent of his year-round Southern California fast-food employees were teenagers. Today, Smith’s seven Taco Bell restaurants employ about 5 percent teenagers — mostly high schoolers ages 16 and 17. The majority of his employees are now adults and seniors seeking full-time hours and benefits.
“For some reason, high school kids don’t seem to be working as much as they did in the 1980s and ’90s — even early 2000s,” said Smith.
“Now, most of our employees — this is their primary job, which is not what fast food was ever designed for.”
The demographic shift at Smith’s Taco Bell restaurants shines a light on the industry’s biggest challenge: a crippling labor shortage. Over decades, and even through economic downturns, the fast-food industry could always rely on a steady pool of teen applicants to take on entry-level positions from cashiers to burger flippers.
But in many U.S. markets, teens are simply not showing up.
According to the Pew Research Center, “even though there are more working-age teens today than in 2000, far fewer of them are in the labor force.” In a July 2018 report, the center estimated roughly 5.7 million teens working in June, down from 8.1 million in May 2000.
In a separate report by outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc., the Chicago-based consultancy found that summer jobs held by teens are plunging dramatically. In 2000, the teen participation rate was 52 percent, with 1.5 million jobs added.
In the summer of 2017, the teen participation rate averaged 35 percent, with nearly 1.3 million jobs added, according to the Challenger report, which was based on an analysis of job data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“Teens are opting out of the job market, as other avenues for development, like volunteering, summer school, hobbies, or travel, take priority,” the Challenger report stated.
Still, Pew’s research of Bureau of Labor Statistics data shows that foodservice is still the top employer for teens looking for summer jobs. Last July, nearly 2.1 million teens worked in “accommodations and foodservice,” up from 1.9 million in July 2000, according to BLS data.
As teens look for jobs in foodservice, restaurant chains are scrambling to grab their attention. And, once they’ve nabbed them, they’re drastically altering training methods to ensure their success.
Some like Irvine, Calif.-based Taco Bell are being creative when it comes to hiring.
The Millennial-friendly quick-service company recently threw “hiring parties” in the Midwest where free swag and food were given to potential applicants.
Others, like McDonald’s, Starbucks and Chick-fil-A, are pushing student perks such as education assistance programs and scholarships for eligible employees.
Bjorn Erland, Taco Bell’s vice president of people and experience, said the Indianapolis hiring parties over the summer were especially enticing to teens.
Over two days, four Taco Bell restaurants treated potential hires to free Nacho Fries and Watermelon Freezes. They were told about the perks associated with working at Taco Bell such as scholarship opportunities, tuition assistance and educational counseling. Those that applied were given on-the-spot interviews.
About half of the 40 hires made at the parties were teens. That falls in line with the chain’s company unit average. More than 55 percent of employees at Taco Bell corporate stores are ages 15 to 24, Erland said.
“For us, young people have always been the heart and soul of Taco Bell. They are the next generation of leaders,” Erland said during a recent interview with NRN.
Based on the success of the Indianapolis hiring parties, Taco Bell plans to do more next year.
Smith, a Taco Bell franchisee for 32 years, said he’d like to see Taco Bell hold parties near his restaurants because the snazzy job fairs appear to attract better job candidates.
Oftentimes, his managers end up settling on teens who are disinterested in work and lack basic soft and hard skills.
“They don’t want to wash dishes. They don’t want to clean bathrooms,” he said. “They can’t figure out how to give back the change.”
Training: Gamification over manuals
Smith isn’t the only operator facing training issues.
Melissa Kersey, McDonald’s USA chief people officer, said the nation is facing a seismic shift in the workplace — one that will require all businesses to take a fresh look at employee training and development.
“As employers, we should re-examine which skills matter most, especially for the next generation entering the workforce. We should lay that foundation for employees to build the soft skills they need that will serve them throughout their career,” she said.
That’s why many chains like McDonald’s have tossed out dated training manuals and replaced them with sophisticated and playful digital training programs. They’re also incorporating philanthropy.
In late August, McDonald’s said training youth is so important that it plans to offer a new pre-employment training program for disadvantaged youth in Chicago. The program is part of a larger $2 million investment McDonald’s is making in programs that provide youth the kind of skills employers are looking for in entry-level employees.
Kersey said relevant youth training is important for McDonald’s because 50 percent of employees working at company-owned stores are ages 16 to 19.
As a result, the brand is evolving its training to be more mobile-centric with employees learning from mobile phones and iPads. The training taps into teen fascination with mobile games, giving points and rewards for learning certain skills. Some games show how one trainee stacks up against another.
Learning by “gamification” runs the gamut — from teaching the importance of washing hands to cooking burgers to solutions for dealing with angry customers, Kersey said.
“You have to make it interactive and fun,” Kersey said.
Del Taco CEO John D. Cappasola Jr. agrees. He said manuals and online testing are things of the past.
He said Del Taco training is digitized and geared for teens. It’s short and succinct — for two reasons, he said: “These guys pick things up really quick — and they lose interest really quick as well.”
At KFC, the chicken chain is taking training to a new level with the use of Amazon Echo Show devices.
Ryan Ostrom, global chief digital officer for KFC, said the company is testing “voice training” with Echo devices in a small number of restaurants in the U.S., Canada and Australia.
KFC’s information technology department has programmed the Echo devices, which look like upright tablets, with various tutorial videos. So, if a worker is frying chicken and needs help with the breading or frying process, he or she can ask Echo for a quick tutorial without thumbing through a manual or asking someone else for help.
Though testing is in its early stages, Ostrom said the results of the hands-free visual tutorials are promising.
He said it normally takes about four to eight weeks for an employee to become efficient on back-of-the-house duties. With the Echo Show training, workers become competent in one week.
That’s crucial for KFC. By 2020, Millennials will make up 80 percent of KFC’s 300,000-strong global workforce.
“We have to train them in more relevant and authentic ways,” he said.
For Smith, he hopes to get back to the days where more teenagers are working at his restaurants and blossoming into great leaders.
“I think that part of our role in society is giving people their first job opportunity,” Smith said. “You can mold a young person into a productive employee.”
This is part of Teen Vision, a special report about how this generation works, eats and plays.
Contact Nancy Luna at [email protected]
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