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A full menu of opportunity

The National Restaurant Association responds to an editorial on wage issues in the restaurant industry with an op-ed of its own.
McDonalds Holds National Hiring Day To Add 50,000 Employees
A McDonald's employee prepares an order at a McDonald's restaurant on April 19, 2011 in San Francisco, Calif.

Editor's note: This op-ed is a response to "The rise of the low-wage restaurant industrial complex," a column by Saru Jayaraman, co-founder and co-director of the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, which ran on on Sept. 13.

The organized protests against the restaurant industry and orchestrated arrests that took place earlier this month were successful in grabbing headlines, but when you really listen to the majority of those who work in a restaurant, you’ll hear a different story about the opportunities available in our industry.

You’ll learn first that only 5% of restaurant employees earn the federal minimum wage. Of that 5%, 77% work part-time and 71% are under the age of 25. This aligns with recent data released by the Pew Research Center showing that the majority of those earning the federal minimum wage are young adults and part-time workers – the exact profile of a worker the minimum wage was designed for when it was enacted.

More importantly, you’ll learn about the opportunities that restaurant jobs have provided the millions of employees who have worked in our industry, and the pride they take in their work.

Restaurants employ 10% of the nation’s workforce – and according to the employees themselves, they are overwhelmingly satisfied with their jobs. The National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation just released a nationwide survey of nearly 5,100 current and former members of the restaurant industry workforce that found more than 9 of 10 restaurant employees and owners say they are proud to work in the restaurant industry. In fact, over 90% of respondents – from crew members and servers to chefs and managers and those in business operations – agree that a restaurant is a good place to get a first job. So much so, that a solid majority of those surveyed say they would encourage their friends or family members to get a job in a restaurant.

The story of our industry is also one of success and opportunity. Consider Randy Swanson, who got his start in the restaurant industry 37 years ago launching his career earning minimum wage in 1977. Today, he owns two restaurants in North Carolina – The Icehouse Waterfront Restaurant and The Boro Café – mainstays in their communities, employing more than 50 people. People like Randy have helped shape the recovery and economic growth of this nation.

We train America’s workforce. Regardless of your age or experience, restaurants are a great place to learn critical skills, such as personal responsibility, teamwork and accountability – skills that help build the foundation for a successful career.

Many Americans who begin in restaurants choose to stay in the business throughout their careers. Perhaps this is because restaurants thrive on upward mobility. Individuals advance to become supervisors, managers, chefs and even owners. The facts tell the story: more than 9 of 10 managers, supervisors and chefs said they started out in entry-level positions in restaurants, as did 77% of restaurant owners and operators.

Our industry welcomes with open arms people at different stages in their careers. Marla Topliff joined Rosati’s Pizza as her first job in the industry at the age of 49. She started as a mom re-entering the workforce after raising her kids and learned the business from the ground up. Today, after a lot of hard work, Marla is the President of Rosati’s.

We recognize that our industry includes some of the most recognizable brands in the world, and therefore are convenient targets for these protests. And, we agree that a debate over wages is a legitimate discussion to have as a country – but not at the expense of so many people who work hard every day.

This is an industry that helps people achieve the American dream. Anyone, with hard work and dedication, can advance. Randy and Marla are just two of the millions of people across the country whose stories are pulled from the menu of opportunities restaurants provide.

Dawn Sweeney is the president and chief executive officer of the National Restaurant Association.