Hospitality industry struggles to find and keep workers

They feel tight labor market, too, even as they seek low-wage workers

  • The Meat & Potato Eatery recently opened in Lake Zurich and advertised for potential employees on the side of the building.

      The Meat & Potato Eatery recently opened in Lake Zurich and advertised for potential employees on the side of the building. Paul Valade | Staff Photographer


Colin Hegarty recently opened a Meat & Potato restaurant in Lake Zurich. The most challenging aspect in expanding the growing chain throughout the suburbs is finding workers, he says.

"It's extremely difficult to find employees," said Hegarty, 29. Things have drastically changed when it comes to hiring and retaining help, he said.

Dan Smith, owner of Uprooted restaurant in McHenry, agrees.

"Trying to find help is the hardest aspect of running the business right now," Smith said. He says he wishes he could hire five employees today. "It has been a huge struggle," he said.

Manufacturing and truck driving jobs have been tough to fill over the past several years, and now you can add hospitality jobs to that list. A tight labor market and an explosion of new restaurants and hotels have made finding and keeping help ever more difficult across the suburbs.

"We are hearing that it is a challenge right now to fill entry-level and even midlevel positions in the hospitality industry due to the strong jobs market," said Maureen Riedy, president of Visit Lake County.

More than 6,000 new hotel rooms have opened in the area over the past couple of years, and that's on top of all the new restaurants, said Dave Parulo, president of Meet Chicago Northwest.

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"Workforce development is a big conversation right now," Parulo said, and it's an employee's market.

In 2017, the National Restaurant Association reported that 37 percent of its members said labor recruitment was their top challenge, up from 15 percent two years ago. With low profit margins leaving little room to do what most businesses do in tight labor markets -- increase wages -- the hospitality industry is having to find other ways to attract and hold on to workers.

Six Flags emphasizes the "fun" work environment and is offering extra perks like tickets for family and friends to entice new employees, Riedy said.

"We have to try to make it easier for the employee," Hegarty said of the nine Meat & Potato restaurants in the suburbs. For example, he often gives employees breaks to use their cellphones as a perk.

Desperate to hire staff, business owners are turning to expensive marketing campaigns and hiring bonuses, and even poaching workers from their competition just to keep their businesses up and running.


Employers are finding that new workers might work a half day and then leave at lunch and never come back.

"This is not new. But it's getting worse," said Douglas P. Martin, director of economic development for McHenry. There is a problem with filling lower-paying jobs, he said.

"Cooks, dishwashers and wait staff are hard to find and hard to keep," he said. "Employers are doing everything they can to try to get employees in the door and keep them in the door."

Industry experts say crackdowns on workers living in the country illegally have affected businesses. Dishwashers and other low-wage restaurant workers have long been recruited from the nation's immigrant workforce, though employers risk legal trouble for doing so if the workers are in the country illegally.

"Our industry is very much in need of a temporary visa program for the low-skilled, essential workers," Shannon Meade, the National Restaurant Association's director of labor and workforce policy, told The New York Times. While visas are available for seasonal work, she added, "a year-round program would go a long way to addressing our hiring and retention issue."


Hotels are having the same troubles.

"I get notices every week from people in our industry. There are more jobs than we have students," said Carol Brown, associate professor with the school of hospitality and tourism management at Roosevelt University.

The same is true at Harper College. Patrick Beach, a hospitality management professor at Harper, said he receives requests on a daily basis.

"I get emails from Hyatt, Hilton and Marriott. I get 5 to 10 emails a day representing about 100 jobs," Beach said. Many of these requests are coming from the Rosemont and Schaumburg area, he said.

He is finding that front-line customer service, including hostesses and front end managers, are the toughest jobs to fill. "The skills are not there," he said.

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