If You’re Waiting Too Long For Your Food, Blame College

Volume VIII, #8

The fraternity of former restaurant workers is large and proud. It’s also not hard to recognize us. It might be the efficient-yet-elegant way we clear our plates. Or the way we pour wine, slightly twisting the bottle at the end. Or that – knowing what it’s like to be a server – we tip really well when we go out to eat. If those aren’t dead giveaways, then listen to our stories.

When I was in high school I worked as a busboy, then waiter in a busy Toronto restaurant and was exposed to the full range of human behavior – from the heroic to the very petty. (And because it was the 80s, I also learned a great deal about white wine spritzers.) Around the same time, a friend and fellow fraternity member was doing the same thing in Washington DC, supporting himself through school by working as a server for Washington’s largest catering company. He talks about how he once saw a Congressman from Louisiana who met a large silver bowl full of shrimp by helping himself to two full handfuls, stuffing the shrimp in his blazer pockets, then walking around the room biting off shrimp and discarding the shells on the floor. Shrimp eating Cajun-style! He also reports that, among DC’s big drinkers, a certain Senator from Massachusetts stood out. He remembers having to help him exit events on multiple occasions. One time he was setting up an alumni event for the Georgetown class of 1961, arranging champagne flutes in the shape of “61” when the Massachusetts Senator came out of an unrelated meeting at the same facility. Before my friend realized it, he had emptied most of the glasses in the “6”.

30 years later, my sense is there’s less shrimp and champagne being served in Washington. In part because they’re a recipe for bad behavior, in part because everyone realizes there’s precious little in DC to celebrate, but also because there simply aren’t enough servers. Last week the New York Times reported that restaurant jobs in DC are growing at an annual rate of 5% and account for about a quarter of all job creation in the region. But despite the fact that the Washington restaurant scene is booming – Zagat named our nation’s capital the “hottest food city” in 2016 and celebrity chefs like Danny Meyer and David Chang are flocking to DC – the entire enterprise is at risk due to a severe labor shortage.

Restaurant owners complain that although there are plenty of candidates looking for jobs – Washington still has a 6% unemployment rate – few job seekers are viable for the new upscale places. Greg Casten, owner of Ivy City Tavern, says that although he’s got plenty of people applying “I can’t even get a waiter to take an empty glass away from the table.” Chef Cathal Armstrong is short-staffed at his restaurants like Hummingbird and Restaurant Eve, and reports that at a recent job fair, he only found six plausible candidates out of 1,000. Linday DiSalvo of Metropolitan Hospitality Group, which operates Circa in four locations around DC, says good candidates are only interested in working at the hottest places, leaving the rest of the industry high and dry: one woman seeking a position at the bar “could not name a single varietal of wine.” Restaurant owners report poaching each other’s workers, rehiring servers who had walked out the door, and lowering their standards where possible.

The National Restaurant Association thinks the solution to the labor shortage is a temporary visa program. Shannon Meade, the director of labor policy for the NRA (no, not that NRA, the good one) notes that while visas are available for seasonal work, “a year-round program would go a long way to addressing our hiring and retention issue.” But despite the fact that President Trump continues to utilize temporary visas to source workers for Mar-a-Lago, if you think this administration’s likely to support such a program, I have a bridge in Brooklyn to sell you.

But maybe we don’t need foreign workers to clear the plates of President Trump and other policy makers. Chris Floyd, owner of Capital Restaurant Resources, a recruitment firm, notes that part of the problem is that people come to DC to “go to grad school or be lawyers... [not] for restaurant careers.” Indeed, there are about 300,000 students in DC-area colleges and universities. Surely many Georgetown, George Washington, and George Mason students would be great candidates for DC restaurants thirsty for talent.

Tapping college students makes sense for two reasons. First, students are facing a crisis of college affordability. Students now graduate with $37,000 in student loan debt. And unless they’ve been living under a rock, they know that there’s a significant risk they’ll have a hard time making payments; one-third of borrowers who graduated between 2006 and 2011 have already defaulted. As a result, sensitivity to incurring additional student loan debt is at an all-time high. As someone whose restaurant earnings funded all of my living expenses during college, I can attest to the fact that $20 tips on $100 restaurant bills can make a big difference.

Second, employers continue to complain about a lack of soft skills in college graduates. The Wall Street Journal reported that 89% of executives say they have a very or somewhat difficult time finding candidates with the requisite soft skills like teamwork, communication, organization, adaptability, humility, and punctuality. A LinkedIn survey found that 58% of hiring managers say that a lack of soft skills is limiting their company’s productivity. But LinkedIn also found that candidates with the best soft skills tend to have had experience in the service sector, including restaurants.

This doesn’t surprise me in the slightest. To the extent I have any teamwork, communication, organization, adaptability, and punctuality skills, I owe them all to my restaurant years. There’s no better way to push the envelope on your organizational and adaptability skills than to manage your way through an entire section that the new host has decided to seat at the same time. And after being “in the weeds” for an hour, suffering the slings and arrows of angry customers and a few bad tips, there’s no better way to test your teamwork and communication skills than to continue working with that same new host (and the busboy, and the bartender, and the expediter) for the duration of an eight-hour shift. Above all else, I learned to anticipate the wants and needs of complete strangers, and the importance of humility, which could be handy on the job – or in job interviews – for a generation that’s been accused of being somewhat self-absorbed.

If everyone wins in such a scenario, why is there a need for a new visa program? Restaurant owners would love to hire talented college students, but are hitting a cultural wall. As postsecondary institutions devalue paid work in the college application process in favor of extracurricular activities and volunteer experiences, they continue to lead full-time, traditional-age college students along a similar primrose path. 18-24-year-old college students are told – directly and in dozens of subtle ways – that the co-curricular and extracurricular path to a good first job (and being able to make their loan payments) runs through as many campus activities as possible, study abroad, and above all, internships (probably unpaid, and enabled by colleges and universities that award credit). Of course, these “valued” activities are ones that colleges and universities control, at least in part. As a result, paid work is devalued – which is reflected in the fact that labor market participation for 16-19-year olds has fallen by half from when my friend was serving shrimp and pouring champagne.

Colleges and universities have a responsibility to make a course correction with respect to how students think about paid work. Such a shift needn’t rise to the level of Northeastern’s vaunted co-op program. It can start by elevating the status of students who decide to work in restaurants and other jobs, and clearly communicating the connection to the soft skills employers are desperately seeking.

Last week Yale took a good first step in this direction with its inaugural “Y-Work” Awards, given to ten undergraduates “whose dedication to their on-campus jobs has had a positive impact on the Yale community.” Although none of the winners work in Yale’s dining halls, let alone the revolving restaurant I once urged the Administration to build, the Y-Work Awards are a start at changing a culture that is exacerbating student indebtedness, limiting the acquisition of soft skills, and contributing to an unnecessary labor shortage.

If colleges and universities don’t take the lead in fixing this problem of their creation, not only will future Senators and Congressmen have trouble finding sufficient shrimp and champagne, today’s students will be less likely to gain the skills they need to become Senators or Congressmen, or any one of thousands of more useful professions.