President’s Column: Investment in education and training is essential—not a luxury

President’s Column: Investment in education and training is essential—not a luxury

By Anthony Anton, President/CEO of WRA

With the policy threats facing the industry (healthcare, $15 minimum wage, etc.), one thing is becoming increasingly clear: restaurants of the future we will need to get more productivity and efficiency out of our workforce, with very little room for error in taking employee risks or hiring mistakes. The minimum cost today, and moving forward, is very likely going to be the same whether hiring a 16-year-old or a 16-year industry veteran. And while we can debate that fact with policymakers all day long, they don’t necessarily comprehend these realities.

This is why the Washington Restaurant Association Education Foundation is continually pushing itself to offer the training resources that will prepare your future workforce to operate with maximum skill and efficiency.

I recently read an article, in a Seattle-area publication, about a minimum wage fast-food worker who had led a tragic life, fraught with drugs and psychiatric issues. It occurred to me that many of the policies currently being debated and enforced will make it difficult, if not impossible, for restaurants to give these workers a valuable opportunity. These emerging policies will demand more training and efficiency for, “committed workers,”—and influence employers to stop taking chances on risky workers. The worker in the article seemed to enjoy his work and he expressed some level of satisfaction in his ability to participate in his community. While the article was clearly advocating for an increase, what it missed was that the industry was giving someone a chance, and that such chances won’t be possible in the future if employment costs get too high.

The story reminded me very much of a former dishwasher in my father’s restaurant, who for the purposes of this article we’ll call Ben. Ben was a Vietnam vet who served our country and at some point developed mental instability issues. Ben was hardly a model longtime employee. He would disappear for a week or two at a time and then just show up again. As an impatient teenager working in my dad’s restaurant, I found that Ben frustrated the bejezus out of me, because he worked at a pace that would make a snail envious. He routinely had to be sent home to shower because his odor was unbearable. And more than once, large amounts of food were thrown away because he would make a mistake that even a below average worker could avoid. From a productivity standpoint, Ben cost more than he ever produced. By any view of meeting minimal employee expectations, my father or uncle should have let Ben go. But they never did; they deeply believed that people needed a chance or sometimes many chances. They believed they had a responsibility to give a military vet a place in our society. Ben has since passed away, and I’m sure my father is not happy that I am writing about Ben at all, because they never did this for any recognition. Although Ben was making slightly above minimum wage, they didn’t give up on him. But within the current $15-an-hour and mandatory healthcare climate, the financial option to stand by Ben wouldn’t have been there for my family.

My point is this: who else would have hired Ben? And not to be cruel, but to be bluntly honest—no one. Banks, retail, manufacturing and nearly all other industries do not have a place for a worker like Ben. They don’t hire Ben or offer them a place in society. And if the current pace of public policy continues, neither will we—it isn’t worth the cost of 14 jobs (the average jobs per restaurant) to go bankrupt in order to preserve the ability to take risks or to make a place for one.

As sad as it is, the reality of what labor is demanding is that the workforce of challenged adults, eager teenagers and others needing a break are going to become solely dependent on government. And moving forward, we will need to stop hiring at ground zero and bring on people with existing training / experience or the ability to receive training and get up to speed within weeks, if not months.

We will move away from, “the risky hires,” to well-trained people who can work at 110 percent immediately. Investment in education and training (just like the WRA Education Foundation) are looking more and more like keys to profitability and success, and less and less like a, “nice thing to do.” Please help us prepare a strong future for our workforce and contact your area coordinator to get involved with the WRAEF today. The stability of the industry depends on it.

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