Foodservice’s staffing issues are nothing new, but the circumstances of the last two years have seen it snowball into a full-blown labour shortage. In September 2021, the number of unfilled jobs in the sector in Canada grew to nearly 200,000 vacancies.
Restaurants Canada’s Senior Economist Chris Elliott notes that the association realized that the labour shortage was likely to be a long-term issue even before the pandemic.
Elliott recently told MENU magazine that in 2018-19, “we could see the writing was already on the wall” from Statistics Canada data.
The number of 15- to 24-year-olds in the overall Canadian population has steadily declined to about 12 per cent right now and will continue to slide to about 11 per cent by 2030, he said. That is a huge problem for foodservice: young people generally account for about 40 per cent of all workers in the industry.
“If you have that shrinking base, you’re going to have to make up for that somewhere else,” Elliott lamented.
He noted that society has also seen “extraordinary social and cultural change” led by Millennials and Gen-Zs. Many people in these generations are postponing entry into the workforce because they’re putting a lot more emphasis on schoolwork, volunteer work, and sports with a view to securing higher education.
Pandemic as an accelerant
Of course, two years of COVID-19 has been a huge accelerant. Much of the focus on that side of things has been on economic constraints and concerns over careers and health and safety.
In particular, many people who would have made up the foodservice workforce pre-pandemic have been rethinking whether or not it is a viable career for many reasons — low and performance-based pay, unsociable hours, high pressure, uncertain job security, and so forth.
However, Elliott highlights another factor.
“Immigration has always been a source for filling jobs,” he told MENU mag. “During the pandemic – especially in the early days – immigration numbers just dropped out. Now, there’s a bottleneck of people trying to get into Canada and an ongoing delay.”
Meanwhile, the continued framing by the government of restaurants as one of the most high-risk places to be during a pandemic has taken its toll, too.
“I think there is some fear from the general public – you watch the news and when they talked about places you might catch COVID-19, it was usually gyms or restaurants that were speculated on in the news,” Elliott acknowledged. “That certainly hasn’t helped the situation.”
A brighter future?
It’s worth noting that in recent times, there have been some signs that things are rebounding and the labour shortage may wane. However, Elliott reiterated there is no magic bullet.
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Some things can certainly help, though: competitive pay, flexibility in hours, a warm and welcoming culture, value-add benefits like free meals or healthcare.
“These have to be permanent changes in order to keep people,” Elliott stressed. “I think there’s two elements to it – bringing people in and then retaining them in the long term. This is more expensive for the operator, but that’s the cost of holding on to your talent. I think it’s the future reality for sure.
“Younger generations want to choose a company that knows how to relate to and support its workforce through corporate values. People don’t want to just work for a company, they want to work for something. If companies start to spread their values and what they represent, and employees understand how they make a difference in the world, that’s what will appeal to a younger generation. Putting those values forward – here’s who we are and what we stand for, and here’s what we can do for you… There’s got to be benefits both ways, and I also think there needs to be flexibility in terms of hours. It will take a combination of efforts.”
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Things such as menu streamlining, strategic price increases to combat rising supply and production costs and inflation, and other efficiency gains have been and will continue to be important to revitalization and success.
But the crux of the matter is that the demand to go to restaurants will always be there, and largely (at least in the long-term) to the same extent that it was present before the pandemic. Elliott holds optimism that will see the labour shortage level out in the not-too-distant future, as long as COVID-19 permits it.
“The pandemic has changed things for certain operators based on where they’re located and how they operate, but I believe Canadians still want to go to restaurants and order delivery from a restaurant they could go to in person,” concluded Elliott. “Ghost kitchens will become a bigger part of the industry, but won’t replace the industry. People still want to go out and meet with people. If you have great food and great service, you can still do quite well… There’s shopping power to spend, and I think a lot of it will end up in the foodservice industry.”