Finding and keeping employees may be the key to surviving tough times.
The tough economy can be a double-edged sword when it comes to recruiting and retaining employees. While the tough times make it vital to retain current employees to keep up efficiency, some operators, such as Tim Dietzler, director of dining at Villanova University in Pennsylvania, are finding that recruiting employees has become easier these days.
“We are seeing a higher number of students seeking employment as a result of the economic downturn,” Dietzler says. “We even filled a new position for a training manager that will focus on recruitment and hiring for the department.”
But other operators haven’t been so lucky. At 24,700-student Colorado State University in Fort Collins, dining services has struggled to find quality applicants for open positions. Deon Lategan, director of dining services, says that makes retention so much more important. To entice student employees to stay on and become student managers, Lategan and his team implemented an incentive program.
“With students and casual labor we have a real struggle,” Lategan says. “Today’s kids don’t want to get their hands dirty. Working at the library and doing your homework while you’re working is a lot more glamorous than working in a dish room. So this past summer, we required all our student managers to work the entire summer. Their primary responsibility during that time was to recruit students for the following year. To entice them, we gave the student managers a cash bonus, we allowed the students they recruited to move into the residence hall early and we paid both the managers and recruits’ room and board if they moved in at least three days early. Upperclassmen know moving day is a zoo, so they’ll do anything to avoid it.”
Lategan says when fall semester began this year it was the first time in recent memory that the department was fully staffed.
Another tough time for dining services to retain staff is during finals. Lategan says they often have students quit due to the stress of exams, so this year the department offered additional incentives, hoping to avoid an exam-time exodus.
“We offered student employees a $100 bonus if they promised to work at least three shifts during exams,” Lategan says. “Since state institutions can’t really give bonuses, we cleared it with HR so we could pay them additional hours. We haven’t had an exam yet, but we’ve had a number of students sign up with that bonus in mind.”
Cultivating from culinary: At 250-bed Unity St. Mary's Campus in Rochester, N.Y., part of the Unity Health System, the HR department has a special recruiter assigned to the food and nutrition department, says David Karpowich, director of food and nutrition services. With the recruiter’s help, the hospital is able to extend its reach to find qualified candidates by working with local high school guidance offices to place open positions for the department. They also tap into the several area high schools that have culinary programs, participate in job fairs at all local colleges and visit senior citizen groups to look for potential employees, among other tactics.
“The culinary schools obviously have students that are interested for our type of career,” Karpowich says. “We’re looking for employees in the short term and the long term, so if we can find a potential candidate that has an interest in the culinary side of hospitality, then the chances of retaining that employee long term are much better.”
The hospital also works with the Rochester City School District for the Youth Employment & Training Academy (YETA). Karpowich says the program helps student graduation rates and allows the hospital to find potential long-term employees, not only for foodservices, but also for nursing and other departments.
“The program is designed to help students, it's also another bridge for us to look for employees long term,” Karpowich says. “They have guidance counselors that work at the schools who determine which students are eligible for the program. They submit the students’ names to us based on interest and it gives us an opportunity to latch onto those students.”
One change the department is considering is flex-time—three, 10-hour days, for example—to offset higher transportation costs.
“With the economy crunch, there have been discussions about if it makes sense for some employees, depending on where they live, to be more flexible with their hours,” Karpowich says. “I can see some opportunities for us to do that with some of the employees and that can be a selling point when we go out to job fairs.”
To make sure employees feel valued, the department gives “on the spot” cash rewards for employees who “go above and beyond” their regular jobs. Karpowich says the department also celebrates National Healthcare Foodservice Employee Week with something special each day. He says this past year the department gave each employee a navy blue fleece jacket with the Unity Health System, Food and Nutrition Services logo on it.
“We all want to be part of something,” Karpowich says. “If you recognize your team for a job well done, it gives them a sense of belonging. It’s not so much the money, but being recognized.”
Teaching to keep: In the 2,800-student School District of Onalaska in Wisconsin, Katie Wilson, school nutrition director, says she prefers to hire from the department’s substitute pool.
“We always put out ads for substitutes,” Wilson says. “When I get a pool of them, I do a three-hour training program for them. Then, we put them in our kitchen for a shift as an extra set of hands before we let them go out and sub for someone. I like doing it this way because one, it trains the sub, and two, it also gives my employees a break for the day because they have an extra person in their kitchen. That works really well, and the staff really likes it because it’s a nice break for them.”
Wilson says as far as retention goes, she encourages employees to participate in the SNA certification program.
“I teach all of the hours in house once a year for free,” Wilson says. “That way, whoever gets hired can get certified if they choose to—they’ll make another 30 cents per hour if they do. I make sure that they get all their training and every year I teach enough credits so the employees can keep their certification without paying for other classes. I only have about 20 employees, so it’s pretty easy for me.”
Another way she retains employees is by providing small recognition monthly, usually in the form of a small present or treat.
“I can never remember birthdays, so I do something each month on their break table. For Halloween, for instance, I put little pumpkins out for each of them as kind of a thank you. I’m really big on writing little notes and taping or slipping them into lockers, especially if a teacher calls and says something good or if an employee really outdid themselves. It just lets them know that their extra effort makes the whole program look good.”
The 411 On Retention
Communication is key at Boston College.
At 14,000-student Boston College, recruiting and retention takes many forms, according to Director of BC Dining Helen Wechsler. From working with vocational high schools to daily “411” meetings, every avenue is taken to build and maintain a quality team.
“We recruit, hire, train and educate our employees in such a way as to keep those we do have years beyond the industry standard,” Wechsler says.
Wechsler says they rely on several different programs to find employees. The department partners with Boston and eastern Massachusetts area vocational high schools and community colleges to hold recruitment workshops and educate students about possible university foodservice careers. The department also participates in school-to-career programs, where it establishes a relationship with area schools and colleges, and then has those schools tour BC Dining’s operations and meet with the management team for mentoring and industry insight. They also established a collaborative event with area high schools and Newbury College, which links classroom teaching and on-the job experiential learning.
“We were looking for different ways to recruit and network, particularly during difficult times of staffing,” Wechsler says. “Newbury College is our neighbor, so we struck up a relationship with them. It’s a great tool because we get a lot of high school and college kids in culinary programs that will come and work for us on a part-time basis, which is often what we need. The other part of it is it can change students’ picture of what college foodservice is about. Most who go into culinary programs want to work in fine dining restaurants or hotels, but they come in here and look around and go, ‘oh, wow, this is kind of a big deal.’”
As for retention techniques, Wechsler says the department’s true focus is on listening and responding to employee concerns as effectively as possible. The daily 411 meetings are one of the department’s most important techniques to get this done.
“They’ve been huge for us,” Wechsler says. “Ultimately, what we hear is that people want to know what’s going on and they want to know in a timely manner. There are times when you don’t always get a face-to-face time with somebody. If that doesn’t happen and there is an issue, employees assume that no one cares and nothing is being done about it. But when they go to these daily 411 meetings, which happen throughout the day as the shifts change, it covers everything and lets them know what they need to know.”
Another way BC Dining fosters communication between employees and management is the BCDS Employee Advisory Council. The council is composed of employees from each unit, with a total of 16 members. Wechsler says the members encourage staff to voice any concerns and share information so “each unit can overcome supervisor communication barriers.”
Employee recognition is also a vital part of BC Dining’s employee retention strategy. The department has an employee incentive program called “Shoot for the Stars,” which pinpoints the areas the team needs to focus on, such as food and labor costs, and rewards employees who do well regarding those areas.
“The incentive program is a way to focus the entire team on departmental goals while providing individuals and teams the opportunity for small rewards throughout the academic year,” Wechsler says. “It allows a diverse workforce to find commonality in everyday tasks. It’s all data driven and you’re competing against yourself year after year. We run the program twice a year and the employees compete in three areas: attendance, sales, food costs. We award pins to individual employees that do well. Every time you get a pin, your name goes into a raffle for various prizes, which are awarded each semester. Also at the end of the semester, the employees in the unit with the highest overall scores get $50 in cash.”
Other ways the department recognizes employees include years of service pins; awards for hourly employees regarding attendance—employees who do not use any sick time receive an extra four days paid vacation; and department-wide celebrations throughout the year such as an employee barbeque and fishing trip. Employees are also encouraged to take advantage of the department’s culinary tuition reimbursement program with nearby Newbury College. Wechsler says several employees have taken classes such as culinary science and theory, international cuisine and supervisory management.
One director offers tools to patch up any operation’s recruiting or retention issues.
Since 1980, Tim Bauman, director of food and nutrition services at Wood County Hospital in Bowling Green, Ohio, has been a foodservice manager. Throughout that time he has learned a lot about how to keep his employees happy. In fact, he had such success with his own recruitment and retention that he decided to share his wisdom in a book, The Food Service Manager’s Tune Up Book. Bauman speaks about some of the best strategies he explores in the book.
“I believe retention begins during the hiring process. The big thing I look for is, do they have a foodservice culture mindset? Foodservice culture has it’s own set of thinking and ways that people act. If you hire somebody who has an office mindset, they may or may not succeed in foodservice. For example, I interviewed a secretary and she came in dressed to the nines, and my HR guy said I should give her a serious look. I took her in the dish room and she saw dirty dishes and she practically ran out. Since institutional foodservice offers better pay and benefits than the typical restaurant industry, I think the managers can leverage that to get very qualified folks.
During the hiring process, you should ask them some specific questions. For example, if they say they can broil or baste, you should ask them the basics of that skill. Some will have ‘schooled’ answers and others will have ‘experience’ answers. You don’t want to overlook anyone just because his or her answer isn’t the most refined. Look for those types of people who continue to learn whether it’s on their feet, on the job or through schooling. Also, obviously training gets you a better employee and therefore a better work environment. If people are performing well, the others working around them are happier too.
As they come in, we talk to them about how to get promoted within the system. I’ll chat with them about what skills they’ll need to do certain upper level jobs. If the position opens up and they can perform at that level, then we let them have those jobs. There is a feeling that if staff put in their time and work hard, then they can get their dream job, too. We give people a relatively stable environment, and they know what the picture is from a career standpoint. Oftentimes we’ll find people are willing to wait around a little longer; they realize it’s not just about time, it’s got to be quality time.
This is especially apparent in chef culture, and I try to get other positions in this mindset. Chefs train in a bunch of different positions so they develop a breadth of skills, so one day they can get the executive chef job. When you support a culture like that, with job rotation and training, then they come in more willing to learn. I have folks who are chefs and still once every two weeks they work in the cafeteria as a cashier. The other retention factor here is boredom. Even a chef gets tired of cooking every day. I strongly suggest job rotation. When employees talk about satisfaction issues, they’ll mention job rotation as one of the things they really enjoy. If somebody calls in sick, you always have someone that has the skills to jump in.
Usually, feedback is collected during job reviews. We also do competencies where they have to prove they know how to do a certain skill set, such as knife skills for our production staff. We do these because it promotes a feeling of excellence that motivates people. Cooking is based on controlling outcomes, so when they can master the basics and move on to more complex things, they are more proud.
I’ve gone for two years and not lost anyone. My average employee tenure is 20 years. I’ve just always been one of those people who never stops trying things and continues to read. I started coupling the book side with the hard knock side and the two together seemed to be pretty effective. So I have a strong belief that this stuff works because I’ve done it. You can’t forget to try something out. You’ve got to drive a car a while before you can know if it has kinks in it.”