by Joseph Sweeney | editor-in-chief
As school comes to a close and students begin looking for summer jobs, they may find that more opportunities are available to them if they’re willing to work in the fast food industry.
“I think there’s the tangibles, like the base compensation, the fact that we have very flexible schedules, that we’re 24 hours a day: we really can work you as little as you want or as much as you want,” Whataburger Talent acquisition manager Nicki Tafolla said. “So let’s say we have that high school student that is moving on to college, you can transfer over there. You can even become a leader with us and go to college. So as your life changes, we can be there for you.”
Since the COVID-19 pandemic began in March 2020, the fast food industry has seen a sharp decrease in applicants nationwide.
“In April and May of last year, with just the unknown of what the pandemic was, and all the recommendations of ‘should I come to work, is it safe to come to work?’ a lot of people were in a place where they didn’t have to work a part-time job, so they would rather be safe than sorry,” Whataburger area manager Micheal Leroy said. “But we’ve noticed a lot of people aren’t eager to come back to work a job that they feel is not what they currently want to do. Over the past five or six months, the application flow just isn’t there that it used to be pre-pandemic timeframe.”
With teenagers making up a large percentage of the fast food workforce, around 75% of restaurant team members, upper management across the industry has begun ramping up their recruiting efforts.
“Whataburger is a well-known Texas treasure. We love to serve our customers some great Whataburger food, and without adequate staffing, that’s really hard to do,” Tafolla said. “We’ve been quite aggressive about getting out into the schools and talking to high school students now, Johnson being one of them. We’re coming in to speak with the band on [May] 24. We recognize that high school students are going to be critical to the business.”
When the pandemic first hit, fast food restaurants also began to see an influx of customers.
“Obviously, when the pandemic first hit, you got to think about the casual restaurants, the sit down dining, they pretty much shut down. They couldn’t open. There was no business. [Meanwhile,] 80% of our business, give or take a unit here or there, was drive-thru,” Leroy said. “We really never stopped our operations, we just kind of pivoted in the direction of saying ‘okay, we’re going to open up curbside as another option,’ and we really continued to do that when the casual dining aspect of it wasn’t able to operate. The bars, the restaurants, the sit-downs, they were closed, whereas we continued to go on.”
Though service-sector employers would see an increase in applicants during the summer months, it remains uncertain if the industry will recover even with the new benefits and wage increases offered by different companies. For one, the Mexican fast food chain Chipotle announced earlier in May they would be raising their average wages to $15 an hour in an effort to hire 20,000 new employees for the over 200 stores they plan to open over the next year.
“We do get an increase in those in summer, and in August we tend to have a lot of them that tend to go to school or relocate,” Leroy said. “We try to pride ourselves on the fact that you can get a job here in the summer. If you’re going to, say, Texas A&M, you want a summer job before you go, you can transfer to one in College Station. Even me, I started out in the restaurant business when I was 19 going into my freshman year of college. We do get an influx of it and it does support kids that want to work and have those extra funds.”
While teens may enter the fast food industry with the mindset of it being merely a temporary job, there is still the possibility the job may turn into a long-term career.
“What’s really interesting is that I’ve gone through two forms of recession with Whataburger,” Tafolla said. “When I first got on board in 2015 there was the housing crisis, and now, the pandemic. And I never thought of this: in my life I got very lucky that I came on with Whataburger. When I was in high school I didn’t think about the career and what that means in recessions, like what companies are actually somewhat recession proof. Twice now I’ve watched Whataburger really rise in an environment where other companies really struggled.”
Regardless of the industry they choose to move into for their first job, fast food jobs can be ways for students to experience social and professional growth.
“I was at a job fair once and I had a student come up to me, and he was talking to me and he said: ‘oh, I just came up here for the free trinkets.’ And I was like ‘thank you for the honesty,’ and he said ‘yeah, I don’t like people, so my career isn’t with people,’ and I said ‘oh, well umm, okay. But just to let you know, it’s like talking to a lot of people no matter what field you go into,’” Tafolla said. “You really have to deal with people and collaborate and work as a team. That is really emphasized no matter the industry, no matter the position, whether it be virtual or face-to-face. It’s not an easy job. You’re not going to ever hear somebody walk out of Whataburger come out and say ‘that was easy,’ but you learn so much by being here. You learn how a business is run and how things should be done. That’s really only going to help you in the future.”