Flipping burgers for bucks? Not so much these days

December 10, 2018 — by Andrew Lee and Ananya Vadlakonda

As the influx of orders piled up at Jack in the Box in the summer, junior Shiv Gupta found himself fielding orders from both customers in the dining room and cars idling in the drive-through, since the restaurant was short staffed that evening. Juggling a mix of french fries, fountain drinks and sauce packets, Gupta settled into a steady rhythm, dishing out sandwiches for each fleeting order.

Gupta is not a stereotypical teen working in fast food for money and entry-level work experience. Instead, Gupta’s family owns 48 Jack In the Box franchises along the West Coast, and Gupta often finds himself working at one of the restaurants over the summer, some weekends and on occasional weekdays, when help is running short. A generation ago, many teens would have  joined Gupta in the fast-food trenches, but these days, he is one of the few SHS students working in the traditional teenage job of fast food.

Nor are Saratoga students alone. Fast-food restaurants, exemplified by extended franchise chains that serve affordable food such as Taco Bell, McDonalds and Wendy’s, are increasingly being scorned by high school students.

According to an article by The New York Times, economists from the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that the percentage of those ages 16 to 19 working in fast food dropped 15 percent over the past 18 years.

Having lived and worked in the fast-food industry, Gupta said that he thinks that high school students are refraining from working at fast-food restaurants due to social stigma and “classism” toward these jobs.

“When people think of fast food, they think of lower-class citizens or blue-collar workers, and though people don't consciously think like this, they don't want to be seen with these lower classes,” Gupta said.

Especially for high schoolers, students would rather be seen working for a popular or trendy cafe rather than a fast-food joint, Gupta said.

“Fast food is not as popular with my peers,” Gupta said. “People would rather work at a boba place or a Chipotle because it is currently popular among students, and everyone wants to go with the popular decision.”

Senior Sarah Meng, for instance, decided to apply for a job at an independent boba place called Boba Drive in Sunnyvale so that she could have “hands-on experience on different work areas.”

Meng said that “having a job in which you serve other people is a really important life experience for young people to have and can impact the way we treat others in that industry in the future.”

Meng also works for McArthur and Levin LPP, a small law firm in Los Gatos, where she files papers and goes on occasional coffee runs. Having a brother who has worked at the firm for 10 years, Meng was recommended the job by her sibling and was encouraged to apply.

However, Meng has noticed that many students do not feel the same way when it comes to working and getting experience in food service industry.

Senior Katie Hulme, who works at Jamba Juice, suggested that students tend to want to work at places they are attracted to as customers and where other employees are people that students can easily connect to.

“I think a lot of high schoolers avoid fast-food jobs because they have bad reputations, but finding a place where you like the people you work with is more important,” Hulme said. “Jamba Juice is super fun because most of the employees are high school and college students, and they’re easy to talk to.”

Junior Christine Lee stays away from working for fast-food businesses because the type of skills required of an employee in the industry goes far beyond those that students obtain at school.

“[I feel like there would be] a lot of pressure because you have to get every single order correct and complete orders quickly, not to mention the food that you make has to actually taste good,” Lee said. “I'd probably give the wrong person the wrong food and burn the kitchen to the ground.”

Also, Lee expressed fear of having “to deal with crazy customers who think they're always right.”

Another trend surrounding job interest and culture at SHS suggests that students are beginning to neglect getting jobs in general, let alone just traditional work in fast food. With long hours required for rigorous classes, students, especially upperclassmen, feel that spending time working at a job may not be as valuable of an experience.

Rajeev Gupta, Shiv Gupta’s father and a Jack in the Box franchisee, said he has seen a decreasing number of millennials and teenagers coming to work for fast-food restaurants in recent years.

Millennials, Mr. Gupta has noticed, want to control schedules and want more freedom with their jobs and shifts they work. Fast food is fundamentally structured in the way it operates and demands certain hierarchy and old work ethics, things that do not appeal to younger audiences, Mr. Gupta said.

“Millenials want to work smarter, not harder,” Mr. Gupta said.

For students like junior Kevin Chang, working in general is something that he does not plan on doing during high school, saying his “junior year is not permitting at all.”

In addition, Chang has also noticed that while parents are encouraging their children to get jobs, a general trend shows that students are less motivated to work due to academics.

Studies on teenage employment have shown the employment rate to be at around 4 percent, and researchers have found that work intensity is often driven by the amount of time remaining after pursuing school-related activities, accounting for the absence of teenage workers in the fast-food industry.

The study found that non-employment doesn’t guarantee educational success and that employment can positively impact educational outcomes if it remains under the certain threshold of intensity that is often determined by a student’s academic responsibilities.

Lee said that although she still plans on getting a job eventually, she feels that school and extracurricular workloads prohibit her from getting involved in the workforce any time soon.

“I don't think I'll get a job this year or first semester next year because schoolwork, extracurriculars and pretty soon, college apps will take up most of the day,” Lee said. “I might consider getting one in second semester senior year since I'll have more time.”

But whether it is because of the social stigma surrounding fast food, fear of overwhelming pressure on the job or the sheer amount of school work that prohibits getting jobs, students, especially in communities like Saratoga, seem to increasingly avoid working in the fast-food industry these days.

“I think most students default to working at a tutoring or education center since it's in our comfort zone,” Lee said. “We don't have to train ourselves to do new tasks like flip burgers since we already learned all the material we teach at school.”