August 5, 2016

Internships Aren’t the Only Way to Gain Valuable Skills – Restaurant Experience Might Be Even Better


You know the usual path: college, internship, entry-level gig. Many recruiters and hiring managers today won’t even give an entry-level candidate’s resume a second look if they haven’t done an internship.

But is this really the right move? It’s possible that those sans-internship candidates gained valuable practical skills in their previous employments – skills that can more than make up for the lack of an internship.

While many college students spend their summers in internships, many more don’t have the financial independence to work an unpaid position all summer. Instead of interning, these students work in coffee shops, wait tables, or flip burgers to pay the piper and waylay some of their student loan debt. Anthony Lye, the CEO of HotSchedules, a developer of software solutions for the restaurant industry, feels that a few summers slinging hash or waiting tables teaches skills that far more valuable than any internship.

“The restaurant industry fosters a good work ethic because it is meritocratic – and brutal,” Lye says. “No one cares about your college degree and where you earned it. You’ll thrive if you can handle the long hours, physical demands, and fast pace. Because you deal with so many obstacles, confrontations, and chaotic situations on a daily basis, you develop grit. Some people are hardworking until they feel like the task is beneath them. People with restaurant experience don’t have an ego about their job. They just get it done. People who work in the restaurant industry are outgoing and great with customers and coworkers.”

Out in the Real World

Interns often spend their summers standing in line at coffee shops, while the worker serving them that coffee has already gained real-world experience with interacting with customers and solving problems.

“In an internship, you’re insulated from the most challenging and unpredictable aspects of the business. In a restaurant, you’re sheltered from nothing, so you’re forced to develop people skills,” Lye says. “While most interns are simulating work, you’re doing the real thing in a restaurant. If a guest is disappointed, angry, confused, or even inappropriate, you have to take responsibility and deal with it. Restaurants don’t have the high gross margins that other industries like banking and telecommunications have. There is nowhere to hide. Restaurants earn their customers’ business every single day. I would add that many internships are not designed to teach a skill set. Instead, they paint a rosy picture of an industry so that interns apply for entry-level jobs and then work 90 hours per week.”

KitchenThe valuable skills learned working in a customer-facing industry like foodservice are undeniable and often translate quite well into the business world if a worker chooses to go in that direction – which isn’t always necessary.

“People skills translate into almost every job, but you don’t have to transfer them. If you thrive in the restaurant world, you rise within it,” Lye says. “You can invent a new restaurant concept, manage a thriving franchise, or launch a restaurant technology company, like my colleagues David Cantu and Ray Pawlikowski did. If they hadn’t learned the challenges of working in restaurants firsthand, HotSchedules wouldn’t exist.”

“That said, if you are going to transfer restaurant skills elsewhere, they will give you an edge in certain fields,” Lye adds. “Servers often become outstanding salespeople because they know how to read customers and connect with them. They know how to sell specials and expensive bottles of wine. Unlike salespeople who obsess over features and pricing, servers understand that sales is about relationships and an accumulation of good experiences.”

From Kitchen to Boardroom

Lye speaks from experience. He began his career working in a resort-town restaurant. Lessons learned from that time spent in the kitchen still impact the way he operates in the boardroom today.

“The restaurant jobs taught me that you have to make decisions. You can’t leave situations in limbo in a restaurant,” says Lye. “You have to do something, admit when you’re wrong, and quickly make a follow-up decision. That insight has influenced my style of leadership. As a CEO, I apply it companywide. I assume that all mistakes are mine, and that empowers my team to take risks. They know there will be no witch hunts.”

Keep this advice in mind next time you want to toss out a resume because the candidate never held an internship. It’s possible that the candidate developed skills elsewhere that are equally as valuable as anything they’d have learned as a summer intern.

Read more in Internship

Jason McDowell holds a BS in English from the University of Wisconsin-Superior and an MFA in Creative Writing from The New School. By day, he works as a mild-mannered freelance writer and business journalist. By night, he spends time with his wife and dogs, writes novels and short stories, and tries in vain to catch up on all of those superhero television shows.