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Arizona restaurant group offering free college tuition to attract employees

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Posted at 4:47 PM, May 04, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-05 11:21:08-04

PRESCOTT, AZ — As the restaurant industry deals with a nationwide staffing shortage, some owners have been trying to add incentives to entice people to apply and work for them -- wage increases, sign-on bonuses, and six-month bonuses.

How about free tuition?

Skyler Reeves, the founder of Vivili Hospitality Group, owns five restaurants in Prescott, Arizona -- Hawk & Hound, La Planchada, The County Seat, Taco Don's, Rosa's Pizzeria and Barley Hound -- and has a sixth restaurant in the works.

He hopes his tuition reimbursement program will entice a new wave of employees.

"[One of our restaurants] might hire 30-50 people and right now we're posting a job and we might get one person to show up or not show up," Reeves said. "Or five people apply and zero show up."

ABC15 has talked with the owners of several bars, restaurants, and breweries over the last few months who all have positions to fill, but have struggled with getting people to apply, come in for interviews, or show up for their shifts.

Reeves thinks a combination of people continuing to collect unemployment or other people finding other jobs after being laid off are part of the reasons that the industry has a shortage of workers.

To hopefully gain a competitive advantage and attract more people to work for Vivili Hospitality, Reeves said his company will offer full-time employees 100% tuition reimbursement through Yavapai College, a community college in Prescott, which is about two hours north of Phoenix.

"We're a growing company. I've always wanted to have a company where people really want to come work for it," said Reeves.

"You go get a job because you want to get paid. You want a paycheck, you want something that's going to better your life in maybe more ways than one. Maybe you don't want to be a server or a cook for the rest of your life but you're going to do it while you're in college and we can make that a better situation for the employees," he said.

Incentives for restaurant workers are gaining traction throughout the industry.

Steve Chucri, president and CEO of the Arizona Restaurant Association, told ABC15 he thinks the industry is short workers due to some people choosing to collect unemployment, others who decided during the pandemic to pursue a college degree, while others got out of the industry altogether.

"I've never seen it this bad," he said.

Chucri said restaurants around the state are having to come up with new ways to attract employees.

"We just had a board meeting last week," he said. "I've got a great board of diverse backgrounds, meaning quick service to fine dining...and they're pulling their hair out. They're saying, 'we can't do this.' We're giving signing bonuses for people, which is never heard of in the restaurant industry."

He does believe that the labor market could normalize more during the summer. In a previous interview with ABC15, Chucri said some of those positions that people may want may not be available months later.

For Reeves, he hopes it becomes a win-win for his employees, their futures, and his company.

"I think some of those folks will find their path with our company for many years," he said. "But the folks that are here for a year, two years, or three years, I just hope all those people see that we're making an effort to reinvest in them and, hopefully, they see some value in that."

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