86'd: How the Service Industry Was Forgotten During a Global Pandemic
If there is anything that was clarified to me during the COVID-19 pandemic, it is the expendability and lack of consideration for the members of the food service industry. In 2019, it was estimated that 10% of the population of the United States worked in food service in some capacity. When the country shut down, the majority of service industry workers were left without jobs, resources, or skills that new employers would see as assets to their teams.
Having worked 8 Mardi Gras, fielding and accurately distributing thousands of orders in short succession, I rebuke the idea that hospitality workers don’t have transferrable skills. In fact, I would posit that working directly with customers waiting for their food or a drink hones and sharpens soft skills much like a line cook hones and sharpens their knives. We understand working in high-pressure environment (being in the weeds), teamwork, and the need for open communication in a workspace.
I had already been moving out of the service industry before the pandemic hit, and the skills that I had gained working in a kitchen have been the most useful. There’s nothing like working in a college bar to prepare you for a classroom of middle schoolers. There was nothing they could do to phase me, I’d worked at the #1 college bar in America, the Boot, and as rowdy as these 12-year-olds thought they were, they have nothing on the masses of inebriated Tulane University students I dealt with every week.
So, why are employers not recognizing the soft skills that service industry workers have? It boils down to a societal lack of respect for the people in the food industry. They are thought of as unambitious, lazy, and unskilled, all of which could not be further from the truth. The line cooks, bartenders, and servers I know are some of the hardest working people I’ve ever met, often working 10–12 hour shifts with little to no breaks. This rigorous schedule is likely for a job that pays less than $15/hour, with no insurance, 401k matching, or the opportunity for advancement, within or outside of the restaurant. This leads to systemic poverty within the industry, as well as all of the negative byproducts of that: high rates of mental illness, addiction, and suicide.
I, as a result of the pandemic, have had the time to pursue UX design, which has given me the language and perspective to give commentary about the user experience of a restaurant. If servers are stakeholders, should we not treat them like it? Why, when 40% of service industry members lost their jobs last year, was it up to celebrities like Guy Fieri to step up instead of our government? Why were service industry workers not offered the essential worker stipend? Why were they not eligible for the vaccines, when food service is one of very few fields where you’re required to interact with maskless people?
As we start to see the light at the end of the tunnel and companies begin hiring again, I ask that you look beyond the resume littered with the names of sports bars and fast food joints, and think about the skills that these applicants may not even realize that they have in sales, customer experience, and data science. I think, like the thousands of meals they’ve delivered, you’ll find that service industry workers bring a lot to the table.