More than 80 restaurants and hotels set up booths for a jobs fair at the Alamodome on Tuesday, but the number of recruiters outnumbered job seekers.

While it is true that recruitment has largely shifted online and job fairs are old-school, as some employers explained, the event’s sparse attendance illustrated a dynamic looming over the hospitality industry’s hiring attempts everywhere: too many employers are chasing too few workers.

San Antonio’s number of restaurant, bar and hotel workers has nearly returned to its pre-pandemic level, according to a federal agency, but hiring signs remain a persistent staple, thanks in part to high turnover.

These hospitality employers are competing for people like Alexandria McKula, one of the few workers who attended the event. A young but experienced veteran of the hospitality industry, she was looking for a downtown employer that would offer at least $15 an hour, which she called her own minimum wage. The three booths she’d looked at so far offered only $14.

Many have been nice, she said, but she’s on guard. “Sometimes these restaurants put on a front when they’re hiring, but when you actually get to the work environment, it’s like, ‘What did I sign up for?’”

The restaurant industry nationwide has been at the forefront of what’s been called the “Big Quit” or the “Great Reshuffle.” According to the latest figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), more than 6% of restaurant workers nationwide quit their jobs in March, slightly more than the hospitality industry as a whole and twice as much as workers across all industries.

Some are leaving the industry entirely, seeking employment with more consistent hours and better benefits.

Others are simply switching to other, higher-paying restaurant jobs. Lucas Bradbury, founder of fast-food chain Project Pollo, told the San Antonio Report last year that this is how he poached workers from other eateries.

Texas restaurant and hotel workers made an average hourly wage of $16.22, an 11.5% pay bump over last year, according to March numbers from the BLS. While that outpaces inflation, it remains one of the worst-paid industries.

Emilee Jones speaks to individuals about job opportunities with Allied Universal Events during the Visit San Antonio job fair at the Alamodome Tuesday.
Emilee Jones speaks to individuals about job opportunities with Allied Universal Events during the Visit San Antonio job fair at the Alamodome Tuesday. Credit: Bria Woods / San Antonio Report

The competition for workers has only heightened as many restaurants have sought to expand amid a pandemic-era boom. The San Antonio-New Braunfels metropolitan area had 133,600 hospitality workers in March 2022, just 3,000 or so below pre-pandemic staffing levels, according to the BLS.

“There’s so many people hiring, you have to be tenacious,” said Aaron Selinkoff, director of operations at Mad Dogs Restaurant Group, which has been on an expansion campaign as sales continue to beat their 2019 levels.

Selinkoff, who represented the company at the job fair, said he’s brought average wages up $2 to $3 an hour for his staff, as well as giving out referral bonuses. “But you can only do so much,” he said. Paying for downtown parking could bring in more staffers, he said, but doing so would cost tens of thousands of dollars a month.

Grupo La Gloria, the San Antonio restaurant group that owns La Gloria and Burgerteca, was at the job fair, too. The group has also been expanding since the beginning of the pandemic, but has strained to find staffing.

Lu Fernandez, La Gloria’s executive administrator and hiring manager, said she might get 250 initial responses to an online job posting. But those numbers quickly drop off as she seeks to set up interviews, for which maybe three applicants will actually show up, she said.

She’s taken it as a challenge to find new ways to engage applicants and keep their attention. If someone sends an application at 3 a.m., she’ll still text them minutes later to follow-up.

“We’re not desperate,” she said, “but we need to give breaks to the people that have been with us for years.”

This article has been updated to remove a reference to exhibitors winning door prizes. The event’s host said only prospective employees won the prizes.

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Waylon Cunningham

Waylon Cunningham covered business and technology for the San Antonio Report.