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Lots of restaurant jobs; not lots of pay

Ross Franklin / AP file

The restaurant industry is stacking up in terms of jobs. Pay? Not so much.

For all you foodies hoping to land a gig in the glamorous restaurant industry in the months and years ahead, there will be plenty of jobs to be had. The problem is, many of the jobs don't come with a glamorous paycheck.

Spring and summer hiring in the restaurant sector is expected to be robust, barring any unforeseen issues such as skyrocketing gas prices, said Hudson Riehle, an economist and head of research for the National Restaurant Association, on Monday. Preliminary estimates for employment this summer are expected to top the 425,000 jobs the sector created last year, he said. The industry trade group will release an official summer hiring report in May or June.

National Restaurant Association

Restaurant employment continues to rise.

“The restaurant industry added 530,000 jobs since the end of the recession, about 150,000 above the pre-recession peak,” he explained, adding that the growth pattern is exactly the opposite of national employment numbers, which are “still below pre-recession peaks.”

Annual job growth in the segment is projected to increase by 2.3 percent this year, up from a 1.9 percent uptick in 2011, according to a recent National Restaurant Association study.

The food service sector overall also is expected to remain strong for the next decade.

Food services and accommodation employment is projected to be the sixth biggest job generator through 2020, creating 1 million new jobs, according to data released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics last month. But jobs in the food service sector, including everything from waiters to chefs, pay about $19,000 to less than $50,000 a year on the high end.

It’s good news that the sector is generating more jobs. But the growth of low-paying food service jobs that often don't come with health benefits or paid sick time, may not bode well for the overall health of the economy.

“They’re better than nothing but it’s bad for the economy that such low-wage jobs constitute the major share of new jobs being created in America during this so-called recovery,” said Robert Reich, former labor secretary under President Clinton and author of "Aftershock: The Next Economy and America's Future".

The National Restaurant Association’s Riehle pointed out that nine out of 10 restaurant managers started out in hourly positions in the restaurant industry. And, he added, there are many jobs beyond lower-paying kitchen gigs, especially among large restaurant chains.

“Multi-unit restaurant operators that started in the 1960s and 1970s are global operations that have employment across the full spectrum, ranging form dish washers to chairman of the board, to accounting and IT functions,” he explained.

But the bulk of jobs, everyone acknowledged, are those most closely tied to the food and drinks.

Here’s a rundown from the BLS of the top food service jobs, what they pay, and the experience needed to land such positions:

  • Chefs and Head Cooks: Median pay for these jobs is $40,630 annually or $19.53 an hour; and most of these jobs require a high school diploma or equivalent. You’ll need one to five years of experience. The outlook for these positions, about 100,000 total nationally, aren’t as good as lower-wage, lower-skilled jobs in the sector. Projections for these jobs show a 1 percent dip through 2020. “Although overall job opportunities are expected to be good, competition is expected to be high for jobs at upscale restaurants, hotels, and casinos, where the pay tends to be greater,” the BLS study found.
  • Cooks: While the cooks don’t get the glory when it comes to a restaurant kitchen, they do most of the heavy lifting when it comes to preparing food. But these jobs come with a median pay of $20,260 a year, or $9.74 an hour. Job opportunities for cooks will jump 8 percent through 2020, adding 161,800 jobs to the 2 million cooks toiling away over hot stoves across the country.
  • Waiters and Waitresses: You don’t need a high school diploma to land a job waiting tables, but the pay isn’t great. Median pay is $18,330 annually, or $8.81 per hour, and that's the total including tips. Federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour. This job is expected to jump 9 percent through 2020, creating 195,900 new jobs. Today, there are about 2.3 million waiters and waitresses working in the United States, and most of the jobs are part time.
  • Bartenders: While these jobs are considered among the glitziest in the restaurant world, they don’t come with a glitzy paycheck. Median pay, including tips, is $18,680 a year, or $8.98 an hour, and many offer on-the-job training. But, according the BLS, “Those who wish to work at more upscale establishments usually need previous work experience or vocational training.”