Restaurant workers left during the pandemic. Will they come back?

Many people left the restaurant industry during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many found new careers and aren't coming back.

Ieshia West loved her job as a bartender.

A 20-year veteran of the restaurant industry who got her first job in a restaurant at age 16, West worked a flexible schedule that allowed her the time to get her college degree. A natural people person, she met some of her closest friends, including her wife, while tending bar at World of Beer in Fayetteville. 

She thrived on the energy and music of a full bar. The money was good. 

But she, like so many others in the hospitality industry, left their restaurant jobs near the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, with no plan to return. Experts say people used the time away from work to pursue education or training at a rate not before seen in previous recessions. 

“People took the initiative to upscale themselves,” said Michael Walden, an economist and professor emeritus at North Carolina State University. 

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Ieshia West, of Fayetteville, left the restaurant industry in 2020 after nearly two decades.

West, 35, graduated from college not long before the pandemic started, but it wasn’t until the pandemic began that she decided to leave the hospitality industry and focus on her other career. 

She transferred from Maryland to Fayetteville around eight years ago to be closer to family. During her years at Olive Garden and World of Beer, she did a bit of everything, from waiting on tables and tending bar, to working in management and serving as a trainer, traveling around to new restaurants and helping them prepare for their grand openings.