COVID has changed the hiring game.

Few industries were hit harder than restaurants by the COVID-19 pandemic. In total, the restaurant sector lost over five million jobs during the early days of the crisis, as businesses across the country boarded up shop and temporarily or permanently closed operations. Over the past three months, starting in February, there have been employment increases in the restaurant sector—however, employment remains more than a million jobs short of where it was in February 2020. Therefore, even with jobs increasing, the industry as a whole is understaffed and desperately trying to find employees.

“The reality is that the COVID-19 pandemic has probably changed many aspects of the restaurant and hospitality industry for good,” says Kristen Fowler, practice lead at Clarke Caniff Strategy Search, a boutique executive search firm specializing in the hospitality, services, luxury, and real estate sectors. “It is going to be interesting to see how the restaurant industry rebound plays out. So many places are struggling to find workers at the moment.”

Restaurant Trends

So far in 2021, trends in the restaurant industry seem to be pointing in a couple different directions.

Takeout and Delivery Are Here to Stay

Only 13 percent of limited-service brands reported being fully staffed at the start of 2020 (before the pandemic), while 38 percent of full-service brands were at a similar position. However, posted job terms such as “drive-thru, delivery, carside, and curbside” have risen from 1 percent of posted jobs pre-pandemic to more than 30 percent in December 2020. In 2021, even with more restaurants opening up as vaccination rates increase and COVID cases decrease, delivery, takeout, and curbside pickup methods of consumption are all remaining high. People seem to be more health-conscious than before the pandemic, and have also fallen into daily activity rhythms that steer away from in-person dining.

Front Of House is Surging

Jobs at the “front of house” such as waiting, hosting, and delivery driving are far more popular than those at the “back of house,” namely cooking, meal prep, and quality control. Frustratingly, because of the increase in delivery and takeout orders, back of house roles are more stressed than ever, which means that understaffing is leading to back of house employees requesting shifts to the front, or just leaving.

The Impact on Recruiting and Hiring

With restaurants several understaffed, recruiting and hiring teams have had to devise unique methods of obtaining high-quality candidates. Whether by offering money for interviews, increasing benefits, or focusing on employer branding, companies have had to scramble to find applicants and secure them for more than a few months. Going forward, each company will have to determine their optimal method of finding employees that fit their culture, and what will allow them to retain talent.

However, there are a few major restaurant hiring trends that seem to be sweeping the industry right now:

Digital Recruiting

While the shift to digital has been occurring for many years, the pandemic has greatly expedited the process. Now, career fairs and interviews are nearly all taking place online, and an even higher percentage of candidates are discovering jobs via career sites or social media. In this age, companies and recruiters must be prepared to find, interview, and onboard candidates remotely, and utilize new avenues including social media platforms such as Twitter to identify talent.

Referral Emphasis

The restaurant industry has faced difficulties in retaining employees, as there have been more complaints regarding wages, lack of benefits, and difficult hours. Studies have shown that candidates who are referred by current employees are more productive, and also seem more likely to stay for longer. Therefore, devising referral programs for employees is a smart and easy way of broadening candidate pool while perhaps reaching more high-quality talent.

Increased Benefits/Employer Branding

There are many, many restaurant companies looking for jobs—so you need to make yours stand out. This can be done through more tangible and quantitative strategies such as higher wages or increased benefits, but also more subtly via organizational culture and staff wellness programs. By carving out a niche for yourself, you can find employees who are looking for what you are offering, and secure employees who will be there for the long haul.

Emerging Technologies

Finally, there are technologies that have emerged over the past couple years that are shifting the restaurant industry as well. These include cloud kitchens, digital loyalty programs, and contactless dining experiences. The latter, in particular, might be a major factor in hiring over the years, as restaurants might require fewer waiters and serving staff as menus become digital. However, as menus and payment systems shift away from physical touch, they will require more backend administration and support. Any crash in a system could prevent numerous orders from being processed, costing hundreds if not thousands of dollars.

Additionally, as recruiting and hiring becomes increasingly digital, marketing and communications staff might increase in need as well. It will become more important to have high-quality websites, have strong outreach campaigns to reach potential employees, and connect with employees. Therefore, the overall shift might be away from front-line employees and towards more back-end operations.

Overall, recruiting and hiring trends in the restaurant industry might be permanently affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Restaurant companies are looking for workers and have to try new methods to find and obtain high-quality talent. However, through digital marketing, an emphasis on employee referral programs, and developing an organizational culture that focuses on retention, restaurant companies should be apply to avoid being understaffed as the industry transitions into the 2020s.

Kane Carpenter is the Director of Marketing for Clarke Caniff Strategic Search. In this role, he is responsible for driving market awareness across the entire JMJ Phillip Holdings portfolio of companies. Kane is also Director for Daggerfinn, an employer branding, digital marketing, and strategic growth consultancy.

Expert Takes, Feature, Labor & Employees