David Faro is the senior manager of workforce and business development for the National Restaurant Association.
In a moment when seemingly endemic skill and labor shortages are debilitating supply chains and hurting growth for businesses across the economic spectrum, skills-based hiring is all the rage. But that comes as no surprise to the restaurant industry.
When Dayanna, an immigrant from El Salvador, inquired about a job at Taziki’s Mediterranean Cafe a few years ago, she didn’t speak more than a few words of English. No one asked whether or where she had gone to culinary school.
But she demonstrated key skills — like a learner’s mindset — and impressed the restaurant manager who hired her on the spot. She wasn’t asked to present a badge or certificate to prove her accomplishments. “They saw potential in me,” Dayanna recalls.
Over the years, Dayanna has parlayed her leadership, organizational skills and focus into a successful restaurant career. She learned English skills on the job — more on that shortly — and picked up a number of other career skills along the way. She has been promoted — not once, but twice — and is now General Manager of a Taziki’s restaurant in Virginia, managing a staff of 25.
As impressive as Dayanna’s career trajectory might be, such stories are fairly common in the restaurant industry, where on-the-job training is ingrained in the culture and skills are often developed before they are validated by industry-recognized credentials. With good reason, a growing number of employers are turning to America’s kitchens for insights into skills-based strategies with the promise to grow their talent pipeline.
After all, the restaurant industry is grounded in a competency-based culture built upon flexible and experiential learning. Both the kitchen and the front of the house are treated like classrooms, with cooks and servers encountering a learn-while-you-earn ethos that mirrors that of other high-demand fields, from electrical work to carpentry.
But the restaurant industry’s skills-based culture is about more than ethos. Along the way, we have created clear and “stackable” opportunities for career advancement that can lead to managerial roles, corporate jobs or positions with restaurant suppliers without having to step out of the flow of earnings — or take on debt — to earn new credentials. That means that individuals with no college credentials or prior restaurant experience can gain critical skills, move quickly upward from entry-level positions to build a career.
In recent years, the restaurant industry has begun to codify and formalize stackable skills into career pathways, which allow workers to translate learning and experience into new roles — and increased wages. Chipotle employees can now receive college credit for workplace learning experience, in some cases earning more than 40 transferable academic credits through on-the-job training for crew, kitchen manager, service manager and apprentice manager positions.
Programs like this reflect the reality that while skill-building and advancement may be the key to economic mobility for workers like Dayanna, others may view the restaurant industry as a step toward higher education — or to a career in an entirely different sector. To make skills-based hiring work, restaurant leaders know that the best way to retain and develop workers may be to prepare them for their next job, making restaurants — as McDonald’s famously puts it — “America’s best first job.”
Savvy restaurants like Taziki’s Mediterranean Café are also doubling down on just-in-time English to retain — and grow — their talent pool. One-quarter of the restaurant industry’s workforce, from prep cooks to restaurant owners, is Latinx, including English learners like Dayanna. Latinx workers are twice as likely to hold a management position in the restaurant industry as they are in the overall U.S. workforce. That’s no accident. Yet workers with limited English proficiency still face systemic barriers in advancing their careers. And opportunities to access English instruction are limited: The U.S. currently serves just 4% of adult English learners.
That’s why Taziki’s has brought the role of English upskilling in-house, tapping often overlooked immigrants, refugees and speakers of other languages to build a thriving workplace and culture. Powered by AI that creates hyper-personalized and curated programs for working adults, this just-in-time approach, developed with the popular English upskilling platform EnGen, enables workers to hone their skills on breaks at work — or at home on their phone.
This isn’t your typical language course; it's grounded in career-aligned instruction, with courses like “English for Food Safety” that simultaneously advance English and workplace skills. Employees like Dayanna who have participated in the program have connected with new career pathways, from the kitchen to the front of the restaurant to manager roles within the business side of the company.
When employers look beyond paper credentials to the skills, experiences and aspirations of workers, they can dramatically expand their talent pool, while building a more loyal, engaged team of future leaders. But skills-based hiring alone isn’t the answer. Offering more opportunities for experiential learning, removing barriers, supporting workers regardless of background — these are just a few of the lessons that employers in every sector learn from the restaurant industry. From working in a kitchen to accessing a career in management, creating more accessible pathways will ensure that success stories like Dayanna’s become the norm across all industries — to restaurants and beyond.