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Editor's Letter

Michael Sanson

Photograph by Roger Mastroanni

A summit of restaurant chain executives met recently in Chicago to discuss a variety of foodservice issues, including the difficulty of finding street-level workers. This industry currently employs about 12.5 million people, but its needs are projected to swell to 14.4 million workers over the next decade.

So, as you might expect, there's a war out there for talent. And I use the word "talent" loosely. Sometimes a warm body may have to do until you can find someone who is enthusiastic and willing to break a sweat. Beggars, as they say, can't be choosers.

But, some of the big dogs are turning up the heat to make sure they get the good workers before you do. Starbucks, for example, is attracting talent by offering health insurance and reimbursement for school tuition and fitness programs. With unemployment at a 41/2-year low, it boils down to which employers are considered the most attractive.

Clarence Otis, head of Darden Restaurants, told summit attendees that full service-restaurants like his company's Olive Garden and Red Lobster have changed their philosophy about hiring. To attract the best, you now have to go beyond offering competitive pay and benefits. If your work environment is not "fun" and you don't make your employees "feel valued," potential employees will look elsewhere, he said.

IHOP honcho Julia Stewart concurred, saying a brand's image is vital to hiring young workers. If kids don't think your brand is hip, they won't want to work for you. "It's making certain that your image, your brand, isn't just attracting people to come in and eat, but it's attracting people to work there," she said.

Not everyone cares if your place is hip or what image it's projecting. Many people simply want to work. They are immigrants, and the Senate is now looking at legislation relating to the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in this country.

President Bush is behind a proposal to create a guest-worker program that would allow companies to hire immigrants for jobs that Americans are not willing to do. The plan also makes provisions for illegal aliens to gain legal status. In December, however, the House of Representatives passed an anti-immigration bill to crack down on border security and toughen enforcement against illegal aliens.

House members, most of whom are Republicans, also voted to set aside money to build a 700-milelong fence along the Mexican border. And they slammed the door on a guest worker program or any means for illegal aliens to become legal.

It was understandable when a large contingent of Republicans split from Bush on his plan to hand over the operation of six major U.S. ports to a Dubai company. But this time the president is right. His party's xenophobic anti-immigration movement amounts to a knee-jerk reaction. Immigration laws do need fixing, but an iron curtain is not the answer.

The people this anti-immigration law would block are among the finest, hardest-working folks anywhere. And without them, this industry could be crippled. Responsible, intelligent immigration laws that address labor shortages are what is needed.

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