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Coronavirus Spurring a Food Service Worker Exodus

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Key Points:

  • Food-service postings on Indeed have gradually recovered during the pandemic, but are losing steam as winter approaches.
  • Food-service worker interest in the food-service sector has declined 18% from the pre-COVID era. 
  • While food preparation and service still attracts considerable interest, some workers in the field are exploring other occupations, such as jobs in marketing and human resources.

It’s no understatement to say that coronavirus has pummeled the food service industry. In mid-spring, thousands of restaurants were shuttered and millions of food service workers lost their jobs within a matter of days. There has been some bounceback since the springtime shock, but the industry has far from returned to the status quo. Even with the possibility of vaccines on the horizon, record COVID cases only worsens the present reality for restaurants. Until the virus is tamed, most restaurants that remain open will continue to operate at reduced capacity and keep in place heightened safety measures. 

The food service industry is also facing lower demand, with consumer spending on services still below pre-COVID level. Many customers appear to only be comfortable dining outdoors — if they are interested in eating out at all. With colder weather ahead in many parts of the country, restaurants may be headed for a painful drop in business and many may not be able to stay open. Even in the face of this, some employers are still looking to hire food service workers.

Food preparation and service may backslide

Line graph titled “Food preparation and service lags overall job postings.” With a vertical axis ranging from -50% to 0%, Indeed tracked the change in job postings trend in 2020 compared with 2019 along a horizontal axis ranging from February 1 to November 13 with lines representing “overall” and “food preparation and service.” As of Nov. 13, the food-related job posting trend was 16% below 2019, with the overall posting trend down 13%. Caption added post-publication.

Throughout the pandemic, the food preparation and service job posting trend on Indeed has broadly tracked overall job postings, dipping dramatically from March to May, but then gradually gaining. As of Nov. 13, the food-related job posting trend was 16% below 2019, while the overall posting trend was down 13%. This represents a huge rebound from the sector’s low in late April when the trend was 49% below the comparable period in 2019.

However, since early November, food-related job posting gains have slipped. It could be a blip, but it’s concerning that it’s occurring right as temperatures are dropping and outdoor dining may no longer be practical in many parts of the country. 

Food service jobs affected in different ways

Line chart titled “Food service jobs a mixed bag.” With a vertical axis ranging from -80% to 0%, Indeed tracked the change in job postings trend in 2020 compared with 2019 along a horizontal axis ranging from February 1 to November 13, 2020, with lines representing “bartender,” “banquet server,” and “cook.” Cook postings were doing better than food-related jobs overall, down 10% from 2019. Caption added post-publication.

Though the food service job posting trend is doing much better than it was in mid-spring, not all occupations are faring the same. Cook postings are doing better than food-related jobs overall, only down 10% from 2019. By contrast, bartender postings are off 25%. Both these occupations have come back from their lows in mid-spring, but that isn’t the case for all food-related jobs. Banquet server postings only rebounded slightly around mid-summer and are still trending 74% below last year. 

The differences between these three occupations are directly linked to the pandemic. Many restaurants have reopened, even if only for takeout, and they need cooks. Bars have faced steeper challenges. It’s no longer safe to have imbibing crowds packed in enclosed spaces and that’s taken a huge toll on demand for bartenders. Similarly, large events have all but halted, devastating banquet server job postings. Until mass gatherings can once again take place safely, those jobs have little chance of recovery. 

Food service workers less interested in the sector

Line graph titled “Food service worker interest in sector down.” With a vertical axis ranging from 0 to 4, Indeed tracked the clicks per postings by food service workers, food preparation and service jobs versus average jobs along a horizontal axis ranging from February to November 13, 2020. On Oct. 31, 2020, food service workers clicked on the average posting 2.56 times more than the average posting, equivalent to an 18% decline in relative interest. Caption added post-publication.

Food service workers have experienced the challenges facing the sector first hand and are now relatively less interested in industry jobs. On Feb. 1, food service workers clicked on the average food service posting 3.12 times more than the average job posting. But, on Oct. 31, food service workers clicked on the average posting in the field 2.56 times more than the average posting, a differential of 56 percentage points from pre-pandemic levels, equivalent to an 18% decline in relative interest. 

Two factors appear to be depressing food service worker interest in the sector. First, health worries are weighing on jobseekers. Most jobs in the field require some face-to-face interaction, usually indoors, and that’s risky when COVID-19 is on the rise. Additionally, food service workers went through astronomical layoffs in the spring, a memory that’s still fresh. Even in non-COVID times, median tenure in food services is low. For some workers, this crisis may be the final straw. 

Some food workers considering career changes

Table titled “Food service worker interest in other sectors.” Indeed listed 10 sectors divided into “sectors now getting more interest from food service workers” and “sectors now getting less interest from food service workers” comparing the percentage point change in interest ratio of clicks per posting by food service workers on sector versus average job on February 1, 2020 and October 31, 2020. Results vary widely. Caption added post-publication.

Food service and preparation still attracts the largest share of food service worker clicks, followed by retail, customer service, and administrative assistance. But, since the start of the pandemic, several fields have experienced surges in interest from people in food services. The media and communications sector has seen the biggest increase. In February, food service workers clicked on media and communications job postings 102 percentage points more than before COVID. The arts and entertainment and marketing categories also posted increases of over 50 percentage points.

These job search trends show that food service workers increasingly are exploring substantial career changes. The option of working remotely may be a big draw, given that announcements about work-from-home options grab job seeker attention. The longer this crisis persists, the more food service workers may consider making a switch.

Conclusion

As daylight dwindles and a chill arrives across much of the country, the food service sector faces enormous challenges. Colder weather will discourage outdoor dining and many people are not ready to dine indoors. In addition, indoor dining is restricted in many places. This leaves takeout as the prime revenue option for the next few months. The food preparation and service posting trend has already started to slip and could worsen as the temperatures dips.  

A full recovery of the food preparation and service sector hinges on the path of the virus. If COVID-19 cases keep surging at record levels, consumers may be less willing to dine out. And when there’s little revenue coming in the door, employers cut hiring and consider layoffs. In turn, people worried about their jobs rein in spending, including meals out. Getting COVID-19 in check is what breaks the economic spiral. There is good news about vaccines potentially arriving next year, but that doesn’t change the food service sector’s immediate situation.

Methodology

To measure trends in job postings, we calculated the seven-day moving average of the number of US job postings on Indeed. We index each day’s seven-day moving average to the start of that year (Feb 1, 2020 = 100 for 2020 data, and so on), or another date if specified on the chart.

We report how the trend in job postings this year differs from last year in order to focus on recent changes in labor market conditions due to COVID-19. For example: if job postings for a country increased 30% from February 1, 2019, to May 22, 2019, but only 20% from February 1, 2020, to May 22, 2020, then the index would have risen from 100 to 130 in 2019 and 100 to 120 in 2020. The year-to-date trend in job postings would therefore be down 7.7% on May 22, 2020 relative to 2019 (120 is 7.7% below 130). 

Food service workers were identified by their most recent title on their resume.

Information is based on publicly available information on the Indeed US website (and any other countries named in the post), is limited to the United States, is not a projection of future events, and includes both paid and unpaid job solicitations.