4 stealable ideas for recruiting and retaining employees

Operators shared their tips for hiring and retaining employees during the SNA's Legislative Action Conference held earlier this month in Washington D.C.
Director of Food and Nutrition services for Marquardt School District 15 Stefanie Giannini speaks to LAC attendees.
Director of Food and Nutrition services for Marquardt School District 15 Stefanie Giannini speaks to LAC attendees. | Photo courtesy of Benita Gingerella

While much of the focus at the School Nutrition Association’s (SNA) 2024 Legislative Action Conference (LAC) revolved around reimbursement rates and changes to the School Nutrition Standards, attendees also took time to discuss another one of their pain points: labor.

Here are four tips for recruiting and retaining staff that were shared by operators during a breakout session at the conference, which took place earlier this month in Washington D.C.

1. Lean on high school students

At Aurora Public Schools in Aurora, Colo., the nutrition team created a second shift to allow high school students to come in after school to do prep work for the next day.

“Our high schools have anywhere from two to seven high school students working that 3pm to 6pm shift,” said Nutrition Director Shannon Solomon.  

To encourage more students to work in the nutrition department, the nutrition team also worked with school officials to allow students to forgo a paycheck and instead allocate the money earned during shifts to go towards student clubs they may be involved in.

While school officials initially balked at the idea, Solomon continued to fight for it and ultimately persevered.

“It's really just continuing to push and advocate for yourself,” she said.

2. Keep an open mind when hiring

When conducting job interviews, Stefanie Giannini, director of food and nutrition services for Marquardt School District 15 in Glendale Heights, Il., has always tried to keep an open mind.

For example, when a potential hire revealed during her interview that she always struggled with commitment at jobs but wanted to change that to set a better example for her son, Giannini hired her instead of turning her away.

“There was just something within me that said, ‘You know, she wants more for herself,’” Giannini said. “We hired her and she's amazing. She loves what she does, and now, she's going to school next year to get her degree.”

Giannini recommends that operators should still be mindful during the hiring process, but that sometimes taking a chance on people can be a wonderful opportunity for both your program and the new employee.

“I have been burned sometimes but who I've been burned by doesn't even compare to the people who added to my team and who I value,” she said.

3. Keep your recognition program simple

When Solomon came to the district as a kitchen manager, one of her first tasks was setting up a recognition program. There was no budget allotted for the  program, so Solomon kept it simple and worked with the school’s art teacher to create a poster board where staff could write and post thank you notes to their peers.

At the end of each month, the team took the down notes posted to the board over the past weeks and read them together during a team potluck.

The boards are something Solomon continues this day as a director to bring staff closer together.

4. Personalize employee shout outs

Instead of giving general compliments to staff, Giannini tries to recognize employees’ individual skills that they bring to the team.  

“That builds up [employees’] confidence so much,” says Giannini.

Another way to make employee recognition more meaningful, Giannini said, is to recognize staff the way that they want to be recognized.

For example, some employees like to be given a shout out in front of the whole team, said Giannini, while others like to be thanked during one-on-one conversations.

“You want to make sure you're recognizing people in the way that's valuable to them,” she noted.



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