From Working in a Restaurant To Working in Tech: How To Make a Career Transition from Food Service

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Most people have worked in a restaurant at some point in their careers—food service dominates popular first jobs like dishwasher, waitress, host, barista, and pizza delivery. Some stay longer to make culinary careers as chefs or managers.

Working in food service can be rewarding but also grueling, as seen in shows like FX’s ‘The Bear’. Whether you’ve just stopped over in food service or have been there a long time, you might be ready for a change. Rude customers, long hours, and high pressure leave many feeling depleted and wondering how to get out of the restaurant industry.

More than 6% of restaurant and hospitality workers quit each month in 2022—that’s the highest departure rate of any industry according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.  While low wages and tips are the biggest reason workers cite in leaving, more than half also say that no amount of money would entice them back. Let’s take a look at one cook’s story, why departure rates are so high, and where workers are going instead.

Peter Cho: From Line Cook to Software Engineer

Peter Cho first became a line cook back in Delaware in 2015. He eventually moved to New York, graduated from culinary school, and worked in fine dining for four years. He had just joined a new restaurant, Momofuku, in March 2020.

Then in an instant, Peter Cho was one of the hundreds of thousands laid off as restaurants shut down for COVID-19. He had to make a quick decision as to what to do next. Without a college degree, his options were limited.

“While I had a lot of fun working in restaurants, there were some big downsides. I made minimum wage, but working 40 hours a week wasn’t enough to sustain living in New York, so I typically worked 60 because every hour of overtime helped.”

Inspired by acquaintances whose jobs in tech remained unscathed by shutdowns, Cho decided to go all-in with a pivot into tech. He enrolled in General Assembly’s four-month software engineering bootcamp and crammed several online courses to get himself ready to start.

Within a month of his layoff, he was in class. Motivated by finding a new job amidst the uncertainty in the food industry, he packed his days with learning how to code. Finally, he got his break with an unpaid internship—then moved on to a full-time software engineering job. He now works at Discord earning six figures as a software engineer.

“I’ll never go back to restaurant work because my quality of life is so much better now,” Cho told Business Insider. “While I feel challenged at my current job, it feels healthy and more enjoyable, stemming from puzzle-solving rather than being yelled at in a kitchen. I still work really hard, but I don’t experience the frequent fear or insecurity I felt as a cook.

“Since switching industries, I make a lot more money for a lot less effort. I now have free time to log off and work out, ride my bike, get my chores done, watch TV, and connect with my friends at the climbing gym. In every possible way, I’ve gained a lot more balance.”

3 Top Reasons People Leave the Restaurant Industry

Of all the restaurant workers put out of work by the pandemic, only 47% considered returning to food service. Now with higher demand and wages than ever before, workers have choices about whether to return or whether to change their career. Here are the top reasons people left for good:

1. Pay and Benefits

Departing restaurant workers cited low wages and tips as the top reason for leaving the industry, a determining factor for 77% of them.

Median hourly wages range from $10.75 to $18.22 for food service workers in the United States (excluding chefs and restaurant managers, who may earn more). That comes out to just $24,440 to $37,900 a year.

Many restaurant jobs also lack benefits, sick leave, or vacation time. The top three factors that furloughed restaurant workers said would entice them to return were a full, stable livable wage (69%), paid sick leave (63%), and health benefits (63%).

2. Hours

Jobs relying on tips and inconsistent scheduling leave workers in a lurch, without a consistent paycheck. Many food service workers work odd hours, like early mornings at a bakery, evenings shifts for the dinner rush, or late at night in a bar.

Nontraditional schedules may work well for a student’s schedule or to accommodate multiple jobs or hobbies, but priorities change. You may have kids or a partner with opposite work shift and may be craving a consistent daytime schedule.

3. Environment

The second and third factors restaurant workers cited for leaving were concerns about COVID-19 safety (54%) and hostility and harassment (46%), respectively.

Rude customers and harassment are a longstanding downside to high-touch customer roles. And while COVID-19 safety may no longer be as much of a concern heading into 2023, the pandemic exposed a profits-over-people mindset at some organizations that left workers feeling devalued.

5 Alternative Jobs for Restaurant Workers in Tech

Digging deeper, it seems that there’s more than pay to workers’ dissatisfaction within the food industry. Joblist survey data shows that workers prefer a different setting, scheduling flexibility, and jobs they can do at home.

If you’ve considered leaving the restaurant industry, you might be at an impasse trying to figure out where to go next. To future-proof your career and find a job you can do from almost anywhere, consider working in tech.

What are the benefits of working in tech?

Jobs in tech are expected to grow at twice the national average. Tech jobs also earn more than the average job, with many earning six figures.

Many tech jobs are also remote-friendly and flexible with benefits such as health insurance, paid leave, remote work options, and education stipends. Some tech companies are famous for fancy offices with free food and gyms—but beyond the perks, you need to find a job you love.

Here are five ideal tech jobs to get out of the service industry:

1. Front-End Web Developer

What they do: Front-End Web Developers use coding to program and lay out a fully responsive, interactive website. If you have an analytical mindset and like solving puzzles and building things, a developer job could be a good fit.

Transferrable skills: Attention to detail, good under pressure

What you need: A degree or bootcamp certificate. A firm grasp of at least one coding language and a portfolio showing your work. Programming languages you may need to know include JavaScript, HTML3, CSS3, jQuery, GitHub, and Sublime Text.

2. Software Engineer

What they do: Software engineers build applications like web developers, but they have a deeper technical background and manage software development projects from start to end. Software engineers earn more than developers as their skills are more advanced.

Transferrable skills: Project management, attention to detail, problem-solving

What you need: A firm grasp of multiple coding languages, fluency in multiple frameworks and tech stacks, and knowledge of Agile development workflows. The best way to get on track for software engineering as a career changer? Enroll in a bootcamp or certificate program.

3. Data Analyst

What they do: Every industry needs analysts to collect, clean, analyze, and visualize data sets. Data analysts use programs like SQL and Tableau to transform raw data into critical insights for decision-making. These skills are in demand—jobs requiring Tableau skills have increased by 1,103% in five years.

Transferrable skills: Problem solving, attention to detail

What you need: A degree or bootcamp certificate. Experience in data visualization, data cleaning, and project management. A grasp of programs like Tableau, Python, SQL, and Excel.

4. UX Designer

What they do: UX designers create, test, and improve apps and websites. If you come from the creative side of food service like working as a baker or chef, this could be a good fit. UX design combines research and design thinking with digital design applications like wireframing and prototyping.

Transferrable skills: Empathy, creativity

What you need: A degree or bootcamp certificate. You’ll need to build skills and a portfolio in web and mobile design along with UX methodology, which you can get through a User Experience Design certificate course.

5. Product Manager

What they do: Product managers balance business viability, technical challenges, and customer wants to lead products and features toward long-term success. They bring products to life with people skills, strategy, and project management chops.

Transferrable skills: People management, project management, crisis management

What you need: A degree or bootcamp certificate. A basic familiarity with all areas of product including UX design, development, marketing, and sales. Knowledge of common design and product management methodologies such as Agile, Scrum, Waterfall, or Kanban.

If these jobs sound interesting but you aren’t ready to leave the food industry altogether, you can explore food tech careers. Companies like Hungryroot, Ubereats, and OpenTable are building systems and innovations for the food industry—and need people like you to fill food technology jobs.

How To Make a Career Switch From Restaurant Worker To Tech

Working in hospitality compared with working in tech may seem like night and day, but don’t let that intimidate you. Soft skills are equally as important as technical skills and can play to your advantage if you know how to market them.

For instance, waiters and cooks know how to work well under pressure to manage multiple tables and orders at a time. Developers may similarly need to enter crisis mode to fix bugs in code or make a quick fix when a system crashes. Identifying your transferrable skills, like teamwork and staying cool under pressure, can help you discover and land your dream job.

Can I get a tech job without a degree? 

While a college degree in any field is helpful to launch into tech careers, it’s not a prerequisite. Demonstrable skills and a portfolio can catapult you into any of these fast-growing fields.

4 steps to begin your career transition from food service

Are you ready for career change? No matter your background, here are the steps you can take to transition out of the restaurant industry:

  • Ask yourself these five questions to determine your general direction
  • Identify your transferrable skills
  • Narrow down your dream job
  • Upskill to build your knowledge and technical skills through courses or certificates
  • Master the application process: build a resume and portfolio, network, and excel at interviews

First, identify your transferrable skills. Even if you don’t have technical skills to boast of, list your soft skills and ask friends or coworkers to share your best qualities. Common food service skills include teamwork, customer service, attention to detail, time management, and multitasking.

Next, research jobs to find out which may be a match for you. Read interviews with people in those positions or take a free intro course to figure out if it’s something you would truly enjoy.

Once you have a target field, find out what you’d need to do to become qualified. In many cases, job-seekers find that they need more training. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean going back to school for a four-year degree and all the time and debt that goes with it. Find out if a bootcamp, course, or apprenticeship program will get you where you need to go.

Last but certainly not least, market yourself and manage your application process like a boss. This includes creating a stellar resume and portfolio, researching employers, networking, submitting and tracking applications, and slaying your interviews.

Transitioning Out of the Restaurant Industry: Get the Roadmap and Support You Need

Let’s be clear, changing careers is a lot of work. But it’s a path that’s been worn by others before you, making it easier each time for people with nontraditional backgrounds to break into tech.

You also won’t be on this path alone. Find a mentor and a cohort that have your back as you navigate this big transition.

Whatever your reason for wanting to leave the restaurant industry, keep it close. Use it to motivate you through the steps you need to take. When it’s finally time to hang up your apron, you can move into your next chapter knowing that you made it happen.

Need a roadmap to get you started? Download the ebook Career Changer’s Guide To Doing Something Different to start your career-change journey.

Disclaimer: General Assembly referred to their Bootcamps and Short Courses as “Immersive” and “Part-time” courses respectfully and you may see that reference in posts prior to 2023.