As good help becomes harder to find, operators are relying more and more on promoting from within.
Labor, always a major issue in the foodservice industry, is taking on increasing importance as Baby Boomers begin to retire in larger numbers, creating a need to either find replacements or bring along existing employees to fill their posts. The benefits of promoting from within are being realized by both independent and contract operators as they look for new ways to use a not-so-new strategy to solve an age-old issue.
A study last year by the National Society for Healthcare Foodservice Management (HFM), which represents more than 2,000 on-staff foodservice professionals at acute, extended and long-term care facilities in the U.S. and Canada, found 24% of its members use existing employee word of mouth, in-house job posting, staff recommendations and employee referrals to find help, while 82% use postings on their facilities’ Web sites.
However, only 24% cited such online postings as most effective, while 21% said they prefer in-house job postings, word of mouth and employee referrals.
For many school, college and university foodservice directors, promoting from within is seen as a key way to build a stable workforce. “We’ve done it for years,” says Pat Higgins, dining services director of the University of Maryland, where 7,000 students are on a meal plan. Management keeps an eye open for potential, moving personnel at all levels up the ladder.
Such workers offer the benefit of "understanding the culture," adds Higgins, who herself is planning to retire this month.
"Many persons who come from private industry have trouble with the slowness of the process," she says. "Our interview process can take four to six weeks. On the outside, they might be hired the same day."
Leo Lesh, executive director for Denver County Schools serving 37,000 meals a day in 142 schools in a self-supporting program he calls a "$30.5 million annual non-profit business," has also promoted from within for years, he says.
"I get more loyal, committed employees that have the same values that we espouse and buy into our vision," says Lesh. "They stay with us and are very passionate, dedicated and professional about feeding children." To demonstrate his department’s commitment to their employees, as well as to improve his department’s efficiency, he has conducted 5,000 hours of training this year alone.
Loyalty to the organization is another plus, says Lorna Kirsch, director of nutrition and dietetics at Clarian Health Partners Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis, which has "an evolving program of succession planning" that accounts for 50% of all posts.
A Model for Excellence
At MSU, Silver Plate winner Mike Rice set the standard for developing leaders.
"Training never ends," declares Mike Rice, director of Auxiliary Services at Michigan State University, home to the country’s largest university foodservice operation.
Auxiliary Services employs some 4,500 to 5,000 students a year, many of them from the School of Hospitality Business, where Rice earned his degree back in 1976.
"We develop the skills to help people develop professionally," he says of the extensive series of programs his department has created to train employees.
Promotion from within has been a major strategy at MSU since it grew from a capacity of around 6,000 residential living units in the 1960s to 18,000 today, he explains, adding: "An educational institution should provide training."
The department’s 800 full-time workers receive the benefits of a core training program throughout the year for everyone from student employees and foodservice workers to supervisors and unit managers.
Quarterly supervisor/management development programs are offered for the 150-person professional staff, and there’s a culinary enhancement program that’s a collaborative effort between the School of Hospitality Business and residential dining.
The training effort, Rice says, took on "a life of its own." Auxiliary Services works with the University’s human resources department to develop "more generic training" and has its own HR department for more customized training.
A Cooks Development Program helps entry-level cooks go through 18 months of training as they work different shifts and gain exposure to all components of residence hall dining from cafeteria meals to banquets and catering.
An Executive Leadership Fellow program for four to six individuals each year targets people with potential for future "promotional opportunities," says Rice. Open to all employees, the year-long program includes guest speakers, a mentor from outside the division, reading materials and discussions, and a project undertaken by the group as a whole. "We look at key issues, such as changes to the financial business system at the university, for example. It’s always something current."
The leadership fellow program was so effective that MSU’s administration developed one modeled on it and implemented it for the entire university, Rice adds, "so we let ours evolve into theirs."
"I think we get more longevity of staff [as a result of the training programs], but we still have turnover of five to seven percent in the housing dining units," he points out. He estimates that 75% to 80% of his employees have "come up the ladder."
A Good Start
Landscaper Derrick Franks gets a new career through Denver Public Schools.
If you’ve ever wondered what landscape gardening and being a school foodservice manager might have in common, Derrick Franks has the answer.
Franks, who had his own seasonal landscaping business for seven years, was among the first group of foodservice employees in the Denver Public Schools Food and Nutrition Services Department’s Manager Training Program, completing the course in eight weeks and becoming a manager.
"It’s a lot like landscaping," he says, "in that you create something you’re proud of by helping your co-workers take pride in their jobs and by keeping them motivated. The tools may be different but in the end, it’s about doing one’s best."
"I’d owned my own landscaping business for seven years but wasn’t making enough income. When I saw an ad from Denver Public School Food and Nutrition Service about its eight-week Manager Training Program, I decided I had to find something more consistent that would compensate me better and give me autonomy; something that would hold me to a high standard.
I’d worked in foodservice 17 years before so I applied and was in the first group. I started my first week with 20 hours of classroom training on foodservice policy, practices and information. It was all foreign to me. I had to learn about free and reduced application processing, what a reimbursable meal was and so much more. I also had 20 hours of computer training and took an intense test to measure my skills in computer basics, Windows basics, e-mail, Day in the Life of a Manager, inventory, ordering, cashiering and reports.
It was challenging, supportive and informative, and it taught me a lot. The hardest part was getting up at 5 a.m. but it gave me the tools I needed to perform in this fast-paced, diverse environment.
After the classroom training, I began six weeks of shadowing a manager trainer at a middle school, which helped me become acquainted with high volume management and food production, and with the students. On completion, I was assigned to Martin Luther King Middle School as an interim manager, which brought more challenges such as dealing with principals, staff and students and their parents.
We serve 1,000 meals a day between breakfast and lunch. I enjoy my co-workers the most. They’re friendly and knowledgeable and it’s a good catalyst to learn.
We’re required to take two classes a year from an assortment that includes marketing, computer skills, food handling, HACCP, and more.
It’s rewarding and there are challenges. You have a lot of demands to meet, from the principal, from the teachers, and you have the challenge of dealing with the children.
I believe I’ve found a home in school foodservice. I’m now manager at MLK Middle School and make sure that the standards are kept up and that my cooks and staff have the right equipment.
In a way, being a school foodservice manager is like landscaping. They have a lot in common. As a landscaper, you want to be proud of what you leave behind. The people I work with need to feel proud of what they do, and my job is to instill that pride in the staff and keep them motivated to do their jobs. My benefits are good and the pay’s okay. In 10 years, I’d like to be in a better position with DPS. I’m 48 now. My plan is to stick around and take my executive director’s job someday."
Clarian is realizing that traditional work patterns and longevity at work have changed. "It is evident that our successors don’t think like we do and are motivated differently. Therefore this leadership development and promotion from within make even more sense."
Other advantages of moving existing employees into higher level posts include reduced turnover and the familiarity existing workers have with "the culture," notes Connie Mueller, director of food and nutrition services at Bloomington, IL, Public Schools. "We mostly promote from within," she says.
For contract managers, a major benefit of looking within for talent can be "giving clients trained professional services managers" who perform with consistency, says Rich Myerson, v.p. of human resources for Professional Services, a Plymouth Meeting, PA, provider of dining and nutrition services to healthcare that uses a CareerLadder development program.
Continuity is an important benefit for Dennis Barrett, food services branch director at the Los Angeles Unified School District, where promotion from within accounts for about 90% of all posts in a system serving 600,000 to 700,000 meals a day.
However, it’s not always a solution for managerial posts where it can be "hard for some to change their mindset and oversee those they previously worked alongside," he says.
At Cura Hospitality, a Bethlehem, PA-based long-term care and college and university foodservice contract management company, a "full calendar of training programs" offers "a win for everybody," says vice president staff development Bonnie Scott. Cura promotes from within for about 50% of all positions and meets with managers to do an annual training and development plan with them on areas they need to focus on.