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Restaurant workers face shortage

Uncertainty has long been a part of the food service industry and now restaurant operators are bracing for two realities with long-term implications.

First, young job applicants are becoming more persnickety when it comes to food service roles and less willing to stay with it long enough to even use it as a steppingstone to other pursuits. Secondly, the same government clampdown on illegal immigrants that sent shivers through the farm industry may soon consume restaurateurs as well.

Such a two-pronged threat looms large against a backdrop provided by the National Restaurant Association forecast, predicting worker shortages in the years ahead. Restaurant and food services is the second largest private sector employer with 12.8 million workers.

The association projects 15 percent job growth, or 2 million additional jobs, during the next decade. Government projections indicate just a 10 percent growth in the work force during that period and the 16-to 24-year-old demographic — encompassing nearly half of the restaurant industry's work force — won't keep pace.

"That's the challenge for us," says Oregon Restaurant Association regional representative Drew Bailey. "The realities are changing. People are staying in school longer and not working during or right after high school as much."

External elements — such as location, traffic patterns, seasons and affiliation — often weigh as heavily on survival as the internal issues of management, food quality and customer service. Seasonal ups and downs are often based on external factors.

"In the summer, when you need to put on extra people, and everyone needs to put on extra people, then you really have to scramble says Rooster's proprietor Jim Potter. "With the Harry and David layoffs right now, we have a good bunch of prospective employees."

That's a nod to the more experienced worker, who is willing to adjust to the demands of the industry rather than see it primarily as a place to congregate with the added benefit of a paycheck.

Rebecca Sabin, a shift manager and hostess at Rooster's on East Barnett Road in Medford, went to work in food service when she was in high school and is a 12-year industry veteran.

"In the last five years, I've noticed the younger they are the shorter they stay," Sabin says. "In fact, young people don't stick with anything if they don't like it."

If a young worker doesn't connect with the work environs in the first two weeks, she says, they move on quickly.

"They don't understand the pace," Sabin says. "You just can't plod along in a restaurant."

Oregon's $7.95 minimum wage — fourth-highest in the country — sharpens the divide as older workers scoop up jobs that might have gone to younger workers in states with lower wages, says Bailey.

Naturally, more attractive jobs keep employees on payrolls, long beyond their original intent.

"Servers and bartenders in their 30s might have a college degree," the ORA's Bailey says. "They can make almost $35,000 in a restaurant or be a secretary at a real estate office making $20,000."

As a result, other jobs may go wanting down the road.

"Everybody wants to be a server and sometimes it's difficult to find back-of-the-house people, the dishwashers, line cooks and prep cooks," Bailey says. "It's more difficult for employers to make those jobs attractive. Even teenagers say 'I'd rather be a server' so typically you're finding the foreign labor pool working those jobs."

While demographics will make it harder to fill jobs, other factors have already reduced the pool.

"We have droughts and points where it's difficult to fill positions," Potter says. "We joined up with the 'Drugs Don't Work Here' program years ago and made the commitment to drug test every employee. It cuts down on the availability of employees, but it also heightens the quality."

The recent growth of downtown eateries and pubs have intensified demand for food service workers.

Darrin Richards, co-owner of 38 on Central Restaurant in downtown Medford, sees an ominous indicator on the horizon.

"It's sort of been a non-written rule among restaurants that you don't try to take key employees," Richards says. "If people choose to leave on their own, that's one thing, but if you go fishing for people offering more money, it's another thing. With more restaurants opening up and competition growing in downtown, it might become more acceptable and more of a problem."

Although experience isn't necessary, Richards says most applicants have some. A revolving door could become costly.

"Training becomes an issue when you have to repeatedly train a new employee," he says. "With the slowdown in the economy, the last thing you want to do is spend time training somebody."

While chasing after younger workers can create headaches, the matter of foreign workers could have ramifications.

Portland attorney Rich Meneghello, who advises ORA members, says the Federal government is gearing up for another run at cracking down on illegal immigrants via mismatched Social Security numbers. Agriculture, hospitality and construction are the primary parts of the mismatched numbers, where the government indicates workers are possibly supplying employers with phony Social Security numbers.

The government announced 3,104 Oregon employers had employees with mismatched numbers last October.

"That may mean mom and pop operators, a one-person shop or huge mega corporations, who knows?," Meneghello says. "But that was just a slice in time from the mid-third-quarter in 2007 when everything was put on hold by the courts. The Federal government will come out swinging again in March. They've told everyone this was coming down the pipe and they better get ready. There won't just be 3,014 employer with mismatches, it could be up to 5,000 or 6,000."

"My sense is the uncertainty is really scaring restaurant and hospitality folks," Meneghello says. "It's going to shake up some when they hear doomsday prophecies by people like me. Others will say 'I've seen this before' and will wait until it actually happens. But there is no doubt that in six months to a year you are going to see an employer made an example and be arrested for not complying with the law and retaining workers they know to be undocumented."

Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 776-4463 or e-mail business@mailtribune.com.

Drew Bailey, Southern Oregon regional representative of the Oregon Restaurant Association, checks out Medford's 38 Central restaurant. - Bob Pennell