Eethan Harris has his hands full at the drive-through window at Dairy Queen on Main Street in Greenfield. Staff photo by Tom Russo
Eethan Harris has his hands full at the drive-through window at Dairy Queen on Main Street in Greenfield. Staff photo by Tom Russo

GREENFIELD — Fast food in Greenfield has been hitting some speed bumps.

Signs have been popping up at restaurants indicating early closing times due to staff shortages. Restaurant managers report difficulty recruiting and retaining workers.

Leaders in the industry theorize that changing outlooks of young people, who make up much of the sector’s labor pool, is one reason behind the hurdles. A veteran of the front lines at restaurants attributes the challenges to stressful environments and weak wages. Experts on economics and the workforce say low unemployment leaves mostly low-skill candidates looking for work, and there’s little else available to them besides low-paying jobs.

Hiring hardships

Kelly Smith, assistant manager of the Dairy Queen on Main Street in Greenfield, said it’s been difficult to hire and hold on to employees.

It could be because so many fast food restaurants in town are hiring, creating what she called an “I’ll-just-find-another-job” mentality in the minds of workers. The fast food labor force’s views on work ethic could be different from those of the past as well, she continued.

“I don’t know what it is, but retaining staff is hard,” Smith said, adding candidates occasionally even blow off scheduled interviews.

Sometimes, she’ll see a long list of fast food restaurants on an applicant’s work history, which suggests many workers have no qualms about changing jobs frequently.

“We’re all hiring, so they think they can just jump from one to another,” she said.

Most of Dairy Queen’s employees and applicants are 16 to 18 years old, Smith said, while some are older. She has seen workers stay on from anywhere from a couple of months to a year. A rare few remain for their entire high school careers.

For now, she said, the staffing at her restaurant is stable, which is unusual.

“They’re a loyal bunch of great workers, the ones we do have now,” she said. “It took a while to accumulate that crew.”

Smith said the Greenfield Dairy Queen starts out employees with no experience at minimum wage — $7.25 per hour — while those with experience can start at up to $8 an hour.

The restaurant is currently slowing down for the season, Smith said, but she is looking at a few applications as a few staffers are leaving.

Hardee’s on State Street in Greenfield had to close its dining room early one night last month due to a staff shortage while the drive-through remained open.

General manager Crystal McWilliams said a full-time night manager and full-time cook abruptly quit for better-paying jobs, leaving the restaurant without enough employees to serve walk-ins that evening.

McWilliams said it was the only occasion she had to close the dining room early because of being short-staffed in her two years as a manager at the restaurant. She’s worked for Hardee’s for five years and has worked for 15 years in fast food.

The industry has a high turnover rate, she said, adding it’s difficult to find employees who want to commit.

She thinks the tensions that come with fast food jobs drive many workers away.

“It can be stressful at times,” she said. “Whenever you have 40 people show up at one time — not everybody is good at handling the pressure.”

Younger employees make up the bulk of the turnover, McWilliams said, explaining they typically stick around for a couple weeks to a few months. But there are also other workers who are older with bills to pay who have been there for years, she continued.

While wages depend on experience, lately the restaurant has been starting off employees at $9 to $10 an hour, McWilliams said.

Mike Rees, president and CEO of CMR Associates LLC, which owns the Qdoba on State Street in Greenfield, said staffing has been challenging there as well. He described the issue as an ongoing frustration. A lack of staff forced the restaurant to close early on a few occasions, he said. The restaurant also did away with the chain’s breakfast menu a couple months ago, although Rees would like to bring it back.

“It’s always been a little bit of a tough market to get workers,” he said of Greenfield, adding CMR doesn’t run into as much trouble with its Anderson Qdoba.

Things have recently come around in Greenfield, however, he continued.

“We were short of staff for a while but we have managed to hire enough where we are no longer experiencing a shortage of people at this point,” he said.

Rees remembers fast food being a popular industry for teenagers when he was growing up.

“That trend seems to have worn out now,” he said. “Kids don’t seem to be as (eager) to get those kinds of jobs anymore.”

The Greenfield Qdoba’s staff ranges from high school to middle-age, Rees said, adding while wages vary and depend on experience, they typically start at $8.50 to $9 an hour.

Dyllan Orth, 21, worked at McDonald’s on State Street in Greenfield for 2½ years, mostly as a cashier, and left several months to a year ago. In his teens when he started, he knew he didn’t have a lot of experience in the workforce and wanted a good starter job. Orth worked full time during the summers and said it wasn’t uncommon for him to hit more than 50 hours a week.

He started at $8.50 an hour and eventually got up to about $9.50 an hour.

“Which is all right in terms of fast food,” Orth said. “It’s fast food, so you can’t expect them to pay $15 an hour. There’s two sides to every coin. It’s not a job that takes a lot of skill, so it’s not reasonable to expect them to pay $15 an hour.”

Most of his co-workers were around his age — late teens to early 20s, he said, adding a few older employees worked on a regular basis.

Turnover was high, Orth said, explaining employees typically tended to stick around for about four months.

“I’ve seen many people come and go,” he said.

They often called it quits because of the atmosphere, he continued.

“It’s a very stressful and high-paced environment,” Orth said. “It’s not even divided into rushes. It’s constant, all day.”

From 8 a.m. to 7 or 8 p.m., there was always a line of people, he said.

“There’s nothing wrong with that,” Orth added. “They do get good business. There’s no denying that at all, but it’s really difficult for the employees there to keep up with it all constantly. It’s an entry-level job, so you wouldn’t expect them to be able to keep up with that from the very first job they’ve ever had to do.”

He said he and other employees would have benefited from more training, and higher pay wouldn’t have hurt either. Wages wouldn’t necessarily have to be $15 an hour, he said, but maybe more like $10.

“Something they can feel proud of,” Orth said.

Food for thought

Hancock County’s unemployment rate was 3 percent in June and 2.6 percent in May.

Michael Hicks, an economist with Ball State University, said those low rates are behind the challenges fast food restaurants are facing in Greenfield.

“It’s natural that it’s more difficult to find employment because the pool of available workers is very low,” Hicks said. “And the first people to feel this pinch are necessarily going to be those who are paying the lowest wages and lower-skilled workers.”

Economists never lament these kinds of problems, he continued. And it’s not because he favors workers over businesses.

“I’m an economist, I think a dollar earned from work and a dollar earned from a person invested in McDonald’s are both equally valuable to the economy,” he said. “What tight labor markets do is expose nonproductive businesses to challenges.”

Businesses unable to remain profitable and secure the workers they need will go out of business, which will free up workers for other firms to hire, Hicks continued.

“That’s a valuable long-term part of the economy,” he said.

One solution would be to increase compensation, Hicks said.

“If you think there’s a labor shortage, there’s not,” he said. “If you have a problem securing the workers you need, pay better wages.”

Lance Ratliff, executive director of the WorkOne Indiana Region 5 Workforce Development Board, also feels the setbacks Greenfield fast food restaurants are experiencing are because of high employment.

“When you have such a low unemployment situation, people who aren’t employed are people who aren’t interested in being employed, and ones that are interested are on the lower end of the skill set needed for the workplace,” he said.

That low end of the skill set also applies to soft skills, he continued, like accountability, showing up on time, showing up for every shift and problem resolution.

“If you have an employee that is in the category of not understanding the value of being there on time, it sometimes works to pair them with a more experienced employee to mentor them and keep them on the right track, maybe even intervene to some degree,” he said. “Although I know it’s difficult because many probably work a second job and don’t have a lot of extra time.”

It’s important workers on the lower end of the skill set spectrum understand what work requires, Ratliff said.

“Some people say that 98 percent of the job is just showing up,” he said, “but if a person is not able to do that or doesn’t understand it’s that important to do, they’re not going to be successful.”

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