Using the right incentives to complete the team

Published in FSD Update

Bianca N. Herron, Digital Editor

When Paula Amols served as assistant director of dining services at Cornell University, staffing came easy, as she had a large number of qualified job candidates to choose from. But as director of dining services at Murray State University in Murray, Kentucky—a small town with a potential-employee pool to match—she struggles to fill open positions.

The university’s lack of competitive wages and strict written qualifications for open positions compound the problem, Amols said, adding that she went most of last year unsuccessfully trying to fill several Cook I and Cook II positions.

“We’ve been employing a woman for about a year now for one of the Cook I positions, and she’s a great worker,” she said. “We’d love to give her the job but it requires a high school diploma, which she doesn’t have.”

That employee has taken the GED test twice and hasn’t passed, so now Amols is now looking to fill the position externally.

Amols said she incentivizes potential hires by selling them on the material benefits and stability that working for the university provides. That includes free meals on the job, quarterly and annual employee-of-the-year recognitions and the fixings for a full family meal at Christmas. She also touts the educational benefits: Once someone has been employed at the university for six months, they can receive a tuition waiver that allows them or their child to take up to six MSU classes for free.

“Last winter I had to fill an accountant position,” she said. “The candidate we offered the position to worked in a local doctor’s office and was being paid more money than we could offer, but she had a daughter who attended MSU. I convinced her the tuition waiver would save her a lot more money.”

But Amols’ biggest method for hiring and retaining her 80 full-time employees boils down to creating the type of close-knit environment where employees want to work. Central to that mission is having managers, including herself, who are willing to go the extra mile to let staff know they're appreciated and valued. “I think it means a lot to them that we’re a very hands-on group,” she said. “When it’s very busy and we’re short-handed, they’ll see us out there helping. I’ll sweep, help with prepping food, amongst other things. (Managers) don’t ask them to do anything we won’t do.”

Despite her staffing struggles, Amols said she is fortunate to have students at MSU who need and want to work. 

Amols said she takes pride in her team because they make it work. “Our revenue is up 5 percent, meal plan enrollment is up, and it’s all because we’re one team,” she said. “No one is above anyone else.”

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