Elvis (Your Waiter) Has Left the Building



An endless series of articles have been discussing America’s Labor shortages, especially in foodservice and hospitality. Blame has been spasmodically assigned to everything from too generous unemployment benefits, fear of Covid, lack of childcare, skills mismatch, and more (see this LOL Hamptons piece).

I have a different theory: Waitstaff, bartenders, hotel maids, busboys, dishwashers (and others) used the year of lockdown to level up, gain new skills, find not new jobs, but new careers. They have exited difficult, thankless, dead-end jobs for a chance at the American Dream.

Elvis has left the building... *

Can you blame them? I worked my way through college mostly as a waiter, but also anything else I could do (tending bar, making ice cream sundaes, short-order chef). It was exhausting, on your feet work, and your comp was mostly tip-based, and highly dependant on factors beyond your control: How many people came into the restaurant, which was affected by weather, reviews, etc.

The CARES Act monies flowed to people mandated to shelter in place at home. Many of them did not spend the year sitting around with their feet up, collecting bennies — they improved their lot in life. Some learned new skills, got degrees online, trained themselves for new careers.

Every time I hear about restaurants being unable to find workers, my first response is to ask if they raised wages; if they did, I ask if they were getting a lot of teenage applicants.

I suspect the people who have been blaming the worker shortage on lazy workers have gotten it exactly backward: It’s not that these folks do not want work, it is that they have been motivated to improve their lot in life. Many have changed careers, and not only that, lots of these people have been launching new businesses to capitalize on their newfound skills, and to pursue a better life for themselves. New business formation has been huge, and in 2020 it was near record-breaking pace.

Blame or credit? I hold no doubt that unemployment benefits are a factor here — just not in the way that so many people think.





Wages in America

Table Stakes (June 10, 2021)

What Makes Teen Employment Data So Interesting… (June 9, 2021)

Finding it Hard to Hire? Try Raising Your Wages (May 6, 2021)






* The origin of the title phrase literally refers to Elvis Presley exiting the stadium after a show. Read about it at Wikipedia or The Idioms.

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