Rethinking what it means to work in fast food

This year, SpongeBob turns 21. Twenty-one-year-old still happily flipping patties at his local burger joint. A generation has grown up with this little fast food worker who has an eternally optimistic outlook on life, even when the orders start piling up and the work seems… overwhelming.

But it is fiction. In real life, few dream of a career in fast food, we guess.

Instead, today’s fast food scene looks more like this: a handwritten strike notice taped to the door that reads, “WE ALL SHUT DOWN.” SORRY FOR THE INCONVENIENCE.” No requests, just half-prepared burgers on counters, helmets on the floor and drive-thru back in the street.

You see, COVID has fueled the fire of worker discontent, causing staff shortages and forcing a major toll on an industry in crisis, without enough people to do the job. And while the number of these small-store walkouts isn’t tracked by the Bureau of Labor, Mike Elk, labor journalist and founder of, has a database of 1,600 walkouts since March 2020 which includes up to 100,000 workers.

We don’t have air conditioning,” McDonald’s employee Carlos Marquez told NBC in mid-November. “We have to work 16 hours a day. And we are tired. And sometimes we have to work seven days a week.”

That’s why bBefore the pandemic, the plan was to turn around 100% of employees each year Well by fast food standards. However, as labor issues escalated even before the pandemic, it was common for quick service restaurants to have turnover rates of 130% and more. It’s losing everyone in your squad every year, then lose some of those you hired as replacements.

So why this extreme exodus? First, in order to create turnover-proof jobs, fast food jobs are standardized into simple routines devoid of any real skill. The model relies on a constant supply of replaceable workers, reinforcing the belief that there is no professional future for those on the frontlines of the fast food. And when an employee feels their job is temporary, where and what is the motivation to work?

The stigma attached to a career in fast food must be eliminated. There’s no incentive for an employee to stay if they can’t see a future, or worse if the future they see is filled with disrespectful treatment.

Breaking out of the temporary and into rewarding career territory

So how would you change the perception of potential employees and make them believe that the QSR job is not just a step, but beyond that, a resume builder?

In a recent third-quarter earnings call, McDonald’s CEO Chris Kempcsinski was blocked. “I was hoping and expecting that we were going to see the situation improve, maybe a bit faster than what materialized,” he said. And more specifically, he went on to characterize staffing environment in the United States as “very difficult”.

But the key to attracting the next generation of workers seems to lie in improving communication, training, and opportunities for flexibility and advancement. And several companies out the fast food space are thinking creatively about how they can challenge and inspire their staff beyond their day-to-day tasks.

For example, Levi’s introduced an eight-week period Machine Learning Bootcamp for employees who trained more than 40 employees, 63% of whom are women, representing 14 sites worldwide. Levi’s recruited employees at all levels, including frontline retail stores, distribution centers and data centers. His Machine Learning Bootcamp is a fully paid program that aims to promote more agile thinking and increase the use of technology and data across the organization to solve the problems frontline workers face every day. Levi’s hacked the system to uniquely empower front-line employees, expanding opportunities for future careers in the process.

Several years ago, Prudential also launched an AI-powered skills training platform that has become a fundamental part of the company’s talent marketplace. The platform identifies skills gaps and needs within the company, provides training and matches new skill sets with internal mobility opportunities for their existing talent. The training platform is supplemented with apprenticeships to enhance on-the-job learning and further generate a strong talent pipeline.

As part of this approach, Prudential employees logged over 100,000 training hours during the pandemic. In the past six months alone, they’ve received over 5,000 internal applications for open positions, more than half of which were filled with their existing talent. Prudential has created a pathway for employees to learn new skills and grow.

Indeed, a recent report found that 40% of the world’s 2.7 billion frontline workers receive training once a year or less. But training is how employers invest in their employees, and when that investment happens only once, employees feel unrecognized and undervalued.

Internal communications are not only a building block in shaping a positive work environment, but they are also essential in supporting growth. Until now, companies engaged frontline workforces through traditional physical communications such as message boards, paper-based processes, and printed newsletters. As internal communications have gone digital, many frontline workers are lost due to lack of access to work email or a computer, making it difficult for companies to reach them effectively. However, a recent study found that six in 10 frontline workers use a mobile device at work, and seven in 10 say app-based training would make it easier for them to learn.

While higher salaries, health care, tuition reimbursement and schedule flexibility are just the basics fast food employers need to offer, restaurants try to attract talent by offering alone the basic benefits are wrong. Currently, fast food even have to pay potential employees to interview, which is unsustainable.

So companies need to rethink what it means to take a job in fast food. Culturally, people are change their professional expectations, rethink their careers and leave their employers behind. fast food need to break the cycle, truly understand human issues and create fundamental change to provide the vision for a viable future career in their industry.

But back to SpongeBob. While his main occupation for 21 years has been cooking French fries, he’s actually had a wide range of work experience. From lawyer to newspaper editor, caped crusader to karate teacher (with aspirations of becoming a race car driver), yet even he has bigger dreams. So the secret to keeping him – or one of your employees – for the long term is to help them feel understood, supported, challenged and valued. Square or other pants.

Sean Boutchard is Senior Strategist at WONGDOODY and Head of Strategy at one of largest experience-driven commerce customers. Over the course of his career, his insights have transformed experiences for Microsoft, PlayStation, Aston Martin, IHG, and AT&T.

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