Mature Workforce Expected to Play Key Role in Food Industry Recovery

April 9, 2021 Updated: April 13, 2021

As Orange County’s restriction-ravaged restaurants recover from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, they’re expected to turn to an unexpected source for help: the aging workforce.

With younger employees moving toward virtual, gig- and opportunity-driven jobs, restaurants willing to dip into the more mature pool for help may just find a golden solution to the economic recovery challenges ahead, industry experts said.

“Everyone in Orange County is scrambling for staff,” Pam Waitt, president of the Orange County Restaurant Association, told The Epoch Times. “Older workers are the answer.”

The demographic shift comes as California plans for a June 15 reopening, after being under government-mandated restrictions and closures throughout the past year.

With Orange County restaurants beginning to expand their capacity, COVID-weary diners are filling establishments in record numbers. As a result, staffing demands are surging at a staggering pace.

By the Numbers

The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that in the next 12 years, employees aged 65 and older will be at a record high, with 16.1 million of them remaining in the workforce. In comparison, there are only 5.1 million teenage workers, the lowest number since 1963.

The National Restaurant Association says that teens once outnumbered adults aged 55 years or older by three to one; it’s now two to one. Between 2007 and 2018, the older demographic rose 70 percent.

While it will remain critical for restaurants and foodservice outlets to attract Gen Z and millennial workers for certain positions, the typical labor bubble is expected to be insufficient in meeting the demand.

To analyze and better understand the economic and social challenges of recovery that lay ahead for Orange County, a coalition was formed between the Orange County Business Council, First 5 Orange County, Orange County United Way, CalOptima, and the Orange County Community Foundation, resulting in its 2020–21 Orange County Community Indicators Report.

The report states that residents aged 65 and older are the only segment of the population expected to see growth between 2020 and 2060, at which point they’re projected to represent 25 percent of the county’s population.

A Slow Rebuild

The state’s restaurant industry is expected to be the last to recover, according to the California Restaurant Association (CRA).

The CRA reports that in California alone, more than 900,000 restaurant jobs were lost. While many of those jobs are expected to come back, with some restaurants closing permanently, not all will return. Nationwide, 110,000 restaurants closed, or one in six, and are not expected to return, according to the National Restaurant Association.

“Restaurants were the first businesses forced to shut down, and in California, 12 months later, we are still pushing to safely get our dining rooms back open,” California Restaurant Association president Jot Condie said in a statement.

“The economic losses to restaurants, our workforce and their communities have been disproportionately enormous.”

The Orange County Community Indicators Report said that due to the various travel restrictions, social distancing measures, and business closures, Orange County’s leisure and hospitality sector saw the highest employment declines, losing 76,600 jobs, or 33 percent of the previous year’s jobs.

Within the leisure and hospitality industry, foodservice and drinking places lost 34,500 jobs, a reduction of 23 percent, while accommodation and food services declined by 46,600 jobs, or by 26.5 percent.

Employment in Orange County’s leisure and hospitality sector peaked in July 2019 at 233,100, dropping to 225,200 by January 2020. Once COVID-19 took hold, employment declined to 123,400 by May 2020, a reduction of 47 percent or nearly 110,000 jobs from the sector’s July 2019 high.