The first wave of summer job seekers is pounding the pavements, armed with enthusiasm, energy, a little experience, and a greater need for money than in past years. More and more these days young people are shouldering much of the cost of their college education.
The food service industry has always been the largest and highest-paying employer of the nation's young, with good waiters making $10 an hour and members of the kitchen crew $4 to $7. This year the sluggish economy and job squeeze make the competition stiffer than usual for summer dishwashing, kitchen, and waiter and waitress jobs.
It's a buyer's market, so young people have to present themselves properly to land a job, according to Bill Watson of Bennighan's in King of Prussia, Pa., part of a national chain of restaurants.
Applicants will be hired or rejected on the basis of an employer's first impression, the way they handle themselves during interviews, and the answers they give to certain questions used for screening.
Mr. Watson, who employs 135 young men and women, says the immediate turnoffs include unironed shirts, sloppy blue jeans, poor eye contact, a weak handshake, and bringing friends along on the interview. ''That implies that the job is not your first priority,'' he says.
Since cleanliness is a No. 1 priority in the food service business, Craig Martin, manager of Binnie and Flynn's in Devon, Pa., vetoes any applicant who fidgets or fiddles with hair during an interview. He is also on the lookout for quick responses to his questions, since timing is important in the restaurant business. ''A quick thinker saves steps,'' he says.
The restaurant business is people-centered, so Jack Moore of Flannigan's in nearby King of Prussia looks for applicants who keep the flow of conversation going in an interview. ''I want people who talk easily about their hobbies or past experiences,'' he says. ''Quiet people don't work out well in our business.''
Certain standard questions are used to determine the suitability of an employee. For example, when an employer asks about outside activities, he is looking for those that give evidence of leadership and an outgoing personality, such as team sports, church, or civic activities.
Many employers question applicants on long- and short-term goals, because having goals shows that a person is an organized self-motivator. A college student might say that his short-term goal is to make enough money to finish college and his long-range one is to be a lawyer. A high school graduate might respond that his short-term goal is money for an apartment or a car, and his long-term one a career in the food service industry.
Not all questions are so direct. Craig Martin asks his applicants their reaction to a customer who doesn't leave a tip. ''A common response is that they'd be angry at the customer,'' he says, ''but the first-rate employee looking for a career in food service is more concerned with her own performance than the customer's behavior. She would ask the customer if service had been poor.''
Many employers ask the applicant why he should be hired. ''Answer that one with your specific skills,'' says Brad Berry, manager of Roy Rogers restaurant in Paoli, Pa. If you haven't any experience in food service, he recommends talking about interests and hobbies that show leadership, organizational, or people skills.
Finally, the most important question of all is, ''How much can you work?'' ''As much as you need,'' is the perfect answer. All employers agree that they are looking for the hungry employee who needs money, because he or she will be loyal and hardworking and won't call in sick or simply not show up. At Bennighan's, not showing up is considered quitting. ''The person who is willing to work the hardest gets the best hours and makes the most money,'' says Mr. Barry.
One manager of a fast-food franchise tells the story of a young man who he thought had great promise. The manager explained to the applicant that he could be making $25,000 a year by the time he was 25.
''Great, when do I start?'' asked the young man. He quit a few weeks later. Why? Because he had to work Saturday and Sunday.