FoodService Director recently talked to directors across the country to see how they’re handling today’s labor challenges. One was Micheline Piekarski, director of food and nutrition services at Oak Park and River Forest High School in Oak Park, Ill. Read on for her thoughts on finding and engaging quality staff.
FSD: Describe your dining operating environment and the challenges it brings to staffing.
MP: We operate the program on a “zero” budget, with no funding flowing from the school district’s education budget, so being fiscally disciplined is essential. The bulk of what I need from staff obviously comes during the 45-minute lunch periods, where we serve approximately 700 meals encompassing 12 different lines. All total, about 2,000 children come through the dining line at lunch to make some kind of a transaction.
In looking at the job market, what is your general short- and long-term outlook in terms of staffing?
It’s difficult to attract part-time workers, and as it stands now half of my staff is mandated to be part-time, per district policy (for insurance cost-containment reasons). I don’t see that trend changing much in the future. With the economy performing well and jobs in abundance, would-be employees have the upper hand. They can find full-time work and, in many cases, identify a position that totally fits their needs. Our circumstance is seen by the fact that many potential employees aren’t interested in taking a part-time job when they can easily find a full-time position. A professional friend of mine from another school district in the Chicago suburbs posted part-time jobs at local retirement homes, understanding that not only are older people loyal and hard-working but they have no qualms about working part-time.
What hiring channels or platforms do you tap to find the best candidates?
Much of that task falls to our HR department, which has several different avenues to scout for workers. One of them comes with posting job openings at local culinary school programs, some being junior colleges. I needed a baker in 2017, but it was a challenge to fill that due to the lower pay scale.
What is your opinion of artificial intelligence, and how do you think it will affect staffing in the future?
This does not apply to us because we are too small to have that kind of need, like hospitals or colleges would, for instance. From the labor side, I think the use of robotics is a negative on one hand but a positive on the another. The positive is that I’ve already spoken about our problem in finding part-time workers. The use of AI would help solve that dilemma to a degree. Can you imagine robotics doing the dishes or cleaning kettles? Nobody wants that job. The negative implication is you’re taking away a human job.
How are you engaging staff to incentivize them and, ultimately, retain their services?
Because our workers are union employees, we don’t have much [opportunity] to offer elaborate incentives involving compensation or other perks. In a less tangible way, I try and do certain things for staff, such as celebrate birthdays. Overall, when it comes to employee relations in that way, I think some of my best stories come from the workers who have been with us 20 years or more and still enjoy coming to work. We instill a level of compassion, and that’s why people stay with us. My employees know that their families come first.
Do you feel a sense of urgency around training workers to handle/disarm a potential crisis such as an active-shooter situation?
The school sponsors training twice a year covering abuse and more—nine different trainings modules. I tell my staff at our meetings that 85% of the time some type of conflict happens, it will probably occur in a dining hall, so they have to be prepared for what they do next.
Have you had success helping help current and new employees understand that they can have a long career with your organization?
To some of my assistants, yes, but that doesn’t work with other employees who are poised to come and go. Sometimes you’ll see people using the dining room job as a stepping stone to secure a job in capacities at the school like security or buildings and grounds, which pay more. My assistant director and my secretary both understand that working in this environment represents a viable career for them.
How do you handle cliques or groups in the workplace?
You need to have staff step out of their comfort zones. I actually juggled my lines this year—at least 75% were shifted to other positions because [they were] getting complacent, and I felt the need to shake things up. It worked, too, through better productivity. Several years ago, we established a policy of not hiring family members. We still have a few family members who work in our dining room, but it’s a grandfathered type of thing.
What has been your greatest staffing success story over the past couple of years?
I had my cook who moved to Florida but came back and wanted to return to work for us. We happened to have a cook position opening, so she swooped in and took her old job back. It’s nice to know that people leave for reasons other than the work environment—most want to stay and, in this case, come back.
If applicable, what kind of adjustments are you forced to make when dealing with a depleted workforce?
We do a few things. We might shut down a couple of lines and consolidate or narrow the overall dining footprint. We typically have two cashiers but will scale back to one if shorthanded, and make a single, longer line. Ironically, kids are not in a hurry, so they don’t mind waiting in a longer line. If need be, my assistant and I will jump on a line during the 45-minute lunch periods.
Have you found success using interns?
We have. Often it’s been two per semester, and they are students from nearby Dominican University. It works out wonderfully as a couple have launched careers in this field. At one time, I had seven interns at once—it’s a wonderful experience for them to get to know our business.