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Saturday October 25, 2014
Posted: Apr 08, 2014

Greater Portland’s expanding food scene brings more jobs, but not higher wages

Commercial Confidential — Business and economics news for greater Portland

This week’s Maine Sunday Telegram delivered "Source," a new weekend section about eating and living sustainably in Maine. The debut issue included this in-depth piece on the history and growth of Maine’s farm-to-table movement.

The growth in Maine farms and restaurants seems impressive from a consumer’s point of view, but what’s it like for the people working in the industry?

Reporter Meredith Goad has written about the increasing difficulty (and rents) in finding a suitable restaurant space in Portland. I was curious — is there any evidence of the same problem of scarcity in the market for restaurant labor?

The US Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics does an annual survey of wages in various industries and job categories, and here’s a breakdown of their data for food service workers in the Greater Portland metropolitan area (which includes Biddeford/Saco and Bath/Brunswick):

2004 wage and employment data for food service jobs in Greater Portland:

Job type
Median hourly wage (2004 dollars)
Real median hourly wage (in 2013 dollars)
# of workers
All food prep and serving occupations
$8.56
$10.87
13720
Chefs and head cooks
$17.11
$21.73
230
Restaurant cooks
$10.77
$13.68
1040
Waitstaff
$6.78
$8.61
2770
Dishwashers
$7.65
$9.72
690

2013 wage and employment data for food service jobs in Greater Portland:

Job type
Median hourly wage (2013 dollars)
# of workers
All food prep and serving occupations
$9.43
18290
Chefs and head cooks
$22.43
140
Restaurant cooks
$11.92
2200
Waitstaff
$8.99
4090
Dishwashers
$8.88
870

Note: Tips are included in these figures. This data comes from a survey, not from tax records, so presumably the respondents don’t have an incentive to under-report their earnings.

A few things to note in this data:

  • Greater Portland’s restaurants are employing a lot more people in 2013 than they did in 2003, and they’re sucking up a larger portion of the region’s total workforce. In 2003, when there were 159,540 these jobs in the region, restaurant workers were 8.6% of the workforce. In 2013 there were 197,620 jobs in the region, and restaurant workers made up 9.26% of the workforce.
  • In spite of the rising demand for restaurant workers, real wages haven’t gone up for most workers. In fact, most restaurant workers have less purchasing power in 2013 than they did in 2003. This indicates that the supply of restaurant workers has gone up over the same period to meet the increasing demand — possibly due to increasing unemployment in other sectors.
  • One exception was for the "chefs and head cooks" category. These workers, who are presumably more skilled and thus in a better position to command a higher price for their labor, are getting paid more (in real terms) than they were in 2003.
  • Curiously, the BLS says that there are fewer "chefs and head cooks" in 2013 than there were in 2004. This seems to be due to changes in how they categorize "head cooks" versus "restaurant cooks," whose population doubled over this period.

For some additional perspective, the median wage for all occupations in the Greater Portland metropolitan area in 2013 was $17.07 an hour — which is almost twice as much as restaurant workers’ median wage.

In short, though Portland’s diners might feel a lot happier than they did a decade ago, the people serving us don’t feel much difference in their wallets.

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