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Industry Challenges: Building a Sustainable Workforce

Westside Works offers a six-week Culinary Academy in partnership with Levy Restaurants. Photo courtesy of Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation.

By Nancy Wood

The most recent report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics was surprising – at 3.8 percent nationwide, the country has the lowest unemployment rate since 2000. Georgia’s latest statistic sits slightly above the national average at 4.3 percent.

With more restaurants opening all the time, Georgia owners and operators continue to face longtime challenges – including a high turnover rate – when it comes to recruiting and retaining a qualified workforce. When specific employee issues are thrown into the mix, like transportation, affordable housing near the workplace and job-hopping for better wages, the industry struggle often seems insurmountable.

With 19 years in the industry and four-and-a-half years as vice president of training and development for Taco Mac, Mary Lowe has faced a variety of workforce challenges, including geography, and finds common ground across the broad spectrum of food service concepts. In the metro Atlanta area especially, she sees both transportation and housing as issues that impact the ability to find employees in specific areas.

“We’re an alcohol-based brand, so late nights are popular with our restaurants in the city. It’s really hard for mass transit to be a reliable form of transportation for team members,” she says. For those with vehicles, parking is an added cost of working downtown.

In suburban locations, mass transit is also an issue, but says Lowe, “In our suburban restaurants, potential team members have more affluent families and don’t see the need to work or have a job in high school and college. Finding people in that workforce who are in close proximity makes it challenging.”

To combat the multitude of issues that impact finding and keeping talent, some restaurants are revising their business models to include benefits programs that go beyond free meals or award-based incentives, offering paid vacations, health insurance and 401-K plans as well as mass transit passes or gas cards that employees can use to subsidize their transportation. Going a step further, some owners and operators are using retreats and outings that focus on the concept’s culture and brand as a way to build loyalty.

“Because we’re craft on draft,” says Lowe, “we offer brewery tours and trips to encourage our team members to learn about our core products and keep them excited about working in the restaurants.”

Nesha Bailey-Mason, executive director of the Hospitality Education Foundation of Georgia

Getting an Early Start
Despite those initiatives, when it comes to recruitment and retention, the battle continues – how do owners and operators help potential and current employees turn what many see as a ‘job’ into a career?

“I’ve spoken with a lot of young people who are currently in the industry,” says Lowe, “and whether they’re working in fast food or are a server, they discount what they’re already doing – they don’t believe they have somewhere to go because nobody’s ever taken them aside and said – ‘you can make a great career from this that’s highly lucrative and well-compensated.’”

In Georgia, nurturing students interested in the culinary career path is gaining substantial support. Since 1989, the Hospitality Education Foundation of Georgia (HEFG) has served as a bridge between the industry and the classroom.

“Our goal,” says HEFG Executive Director Nesha Bailey-Mason, “is to offer resources and opportunities to help educators help high school students make that connection to their career path.”

The Foundation gives teens a start toward a career through the ProStart® program – a nationwide educational program originally started by the National Restaurant Association and launched in Georgia in 1997. By 2005, the HEFG had instituted the Georgia State ProStart® Championships, a competition where teams of culinary arts and consumer science students demonstrate their skills. They also launched the Hospitality Career Expo, which brings every sector of the hospitality industry together to help educate students about careers in the industry.

Mary Lowe, vice president of training and develop- ment for Taco Mac

“Many of the kids don’t consider continuing in culinary because they have a very limited view of what a foodservice career looks like,” says Bailey-Mason. “The Expo demonstrates the many areas that culinary arts and hospitality touches.” By helping students see how the entry-level position they have right now can lead to that end goal, says Bailey-Mason, “They’re climbing a ladder and not just rolling around in the abyss.”

Across the state, efforts like this are getting a big boost from foundations and non-profits dedicated to turning a young person’s passion for foodservice into a lifelong career. And some innovative apprenticeship programs are stepping in to provide a healthy pipeline of next-generation staff.

Connecting the Workforce to Opportunity
For the last four-and-a-half years, the Westside Works Foundation has been offering a culinary apprenticeship program through the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation and Levy’s Restaurants, a Chicago-based company that provides food services to major entertainment and sports venues, including the Georgia World Congress Center, Phillips Arena and Mercedes- Benz Stadium.

“The idea was Arthur Blank’s through his family foundation,” says Juliet Peters, Culinary Instructor for the Levy Culinary Academy. “They had an idea to increase job force training for people who had a lack of opportunity,” Peters explains. “They chose specific industries, and one of them happened to be culinary.”

In addition to basic kitchen skills, safety protocols, international cuisine, baking and pastry, the six-week apprenticeship program covers so skills like showing up on time, communicating properly and with respect, and offers the opportunity to receive ServSafe® certification. Because the program is run in conjunction with Levy Restaurants, students take classes at the “fully functional, beautiful stadium kitchens.” A perk Peters says is “Not bad!”

The apprenticeship program is open to good applicants from areas other than the Westside, says Peters, and isn’t specifically designed to staff the venues where Levy has contracts. “It’s really not to staff the stadium,” she explains. “That’s a great attribute – but we would be doing a disservice to the graduates who need a more set schedule and steady, gainful employment instead of something that’s seasonal.” Under Peters’ direction, the students and graduates also gain valuable experience running the largest concession stand at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

The program’s success is evident:Concepts like Honeysuckle Gelato and Ford Fry’s Rocket Farms Restaurant Group hire exclusively from the Culinary Academy, and Georgia State University hires almost exclusively from the pool of graduates. Peters, who acts as a liaison to match the right employee to the right employer says, “People who hire from us know the skill set they’re going to get from my students.”

Mapping a Pathway to Career Success
One of the newest programs in the state is the Georgia Hospitality Apprenticeship Program (G-HAP), which is operated by HEFG in partnership with the Georgia Restaurant Association (GRA). Officially launched in 2017, the national program was developed by the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation (NRAEF) in partnership with the American Hotel and Lodging Association and the U.S. Department of Labor and specifies certain requirements for employers to offer apprenticeships to their employees. Georgia is one of only 13 states that are able to use the national standards for its state “earn while you learn” apprenticeship program.

HEFG’s Bailey-Mason thinks the apprenticeship program “is exactly the tool we need to harness the natural interest of high school students and channel it into a real, productive workforce.” While the HEFG’s primary mission is providing support for educating hospitality and foodservice students at the high school level, Bailey-Mason views G-HAP as “a clearly identified pathway to national restaurant management certification.

The ProStart program helps prepare high school students for a career in the hospitality industry. Here, the State Champion ProStart team from Meadowcreek High School in Norcross practice for the national ProStart competition. Photo courtesy of Hospitality Education Foundation of Georgia

“Before,” she says, “our ProStart students got all this great culinary training in high school, and it wasn’t necessarily something the industry recognized. Under the national certification program, students who are working in the industry get credit for the competencies they learned in high school – like college credit.”

Taco Mac was a leader in implementing the apprenticeship program in Georgia, and Mary Lowe relished taking on the task. “For an employer to qualify,” she says, “there’s a simple commitment form to ll out stating they will follow the rules within the program.” For example, applicants have to be 18 years old with a high school diploma or GED equivalency. “They also have to pass whatever your concept has in place – like a drug or background screen.”

“From there,” she explains, “someone on the NRAEF team takes your current training curriculum and maps it against the national competencies for the program.” The competencies don’t exclude any level of concept or level of service, she adds. “You have to be an 80 percent match minimum, and I would say the majority of restaurant concepts out there are going to be a match with the materials they already have in place.”

“Right now,” adds Lowe, “there are grant monies available through the apprenticeship program, and if [your business] qualifies, you can use those to build out your program where you are deficient. That’s great if you’re looking to make your training program more robust.”

G-HAP includes three competency levels with varying tasks the apprentices need to master. “ The first level,” explains Lowe, “includes critical basic hourly skillsets such as knife skills, safety sanitation, guest interaction and steps of service.” The next level covers competencies for key hourly supervisor roles or managers in training, such as managing daily operations, effective communication and managing a safe, healthy workplace.

“The last level,” she says, “focuses on restaurant management.” That level includes financial management, staffing, training and other intricacies, “like creating a local restaurant marketing plan and more of the technical HR pieces you need to master.”

Overall, G-HAP requires 225 instructional hours, and credit is given for those with experience in the industry. “ at can be everything from your orientations to classroom training and ServSafe certification,” Lowe says. “For example, if you’re a Pro- Start student in a Georgia high school and you’ve gone through classroom instructional training, you get credit for that. Or, if you’ve had experience within the industry and have certifications like OSHA training, you can get credit for that.”

Through the Georgia Hospitality Apprenticeship Program, Taco Mac has already found 50 employees. Photo courtsey of Taco Mac

An apprentice’s ability is competency-based, and mastering those competencies can take anywhere from six months to two years. “Some people are faster learners than others,” Lowe says. “While it might take only six months for a more experienced person, it could take two years for someone with virtually no restaurant experience.”

With more than 50 employees already signed up, Taco Mac’s apprenticeship program has been a win-win. “Our team members are really excited,” she says. “They had a career path within Taco Mac, but now it aligns with the national standards and it adds more credibility to what they’re doing here.” Another win, says Lowe, is the fact that any level of employee can be an apprentice. “You don’t have to be a key team member. You can still be part of the apprenticeship as a line cook or as a server.”

“Restaurants can tap into a tremendous amount of support through this apprenticeship program,” says HEFG’s Bailey-Mason. “The restaurants that have signed on to the apprenticeship program so far are using it for their existing employees – but as we move forward, those restaurateurs who may not have a training program in place may be using the apprenticeship program as their training program. HEFG can help them navigate through it – especially to tap into the financial resources that might be available to apprentice hosts.”

Lowe sums it up like this: “The G-HAP program is a great way to segue classroom training – then on-the-job training – then round out with a national certification. There are a lot of wins that connect in multiple areas.”

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