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7 ways school foodservice teams are staffing up

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Full up on staff? Probably not—at least if you’re anything like your peers. These days, foodservice workers have their pick of kitchen posts. That’s part of why more than one-third of American foodservice operators have hard-to-fill job openings, according to a recent survey by national distributor US Foods. What’s more, almost half (49%) of respondents said they worry about the industry’s ongoing labor shortage. Here are some ways operators can get creative to fill the many open positions out there.

Recruit parents

Family events such as orientations and open houses can become fertile recruiting grounds. Jennifer Reiser, director of food and nutrition services for Grove City Area School District in Grove City, Pa., has made her pitch to parents this way: “It’s a fast-paced work environment, your days go quickly, and if your kids eat lunch, you get to see them. No holidays, no weekends, no evenings, no summers.” And it’s worked. Reiser says she often starts by getting parents on the substitute list before job openings come up.

Consider students

A different appeal can be made to college students, because they can schedule classes at different times of day than the hours they’re needed in K-12, Reiser has found. But even younger students can be brought on board to help ease the load of an understaffed, overworked team. The district’s Life Skills students, some of whom have conditions such as autism and Down syndrome, help Reiser run a coffee shop. Reiser put together an educational guide for them on points such as portion sizes, food safety and customer service, and the student employees earn internship credits. “I thought my [full-time] staff would grieve that position,” she says, “but I think they saw the value.”

Offer fresh incentives

These days, Curtistine Walker, director of food service for Pittsburgh Public Schools, is short-staffed in at least 15 of her 54 facilities. So she used a donated $100 gift card to craft some friendly competition: If an employee recommended an applicant who successfully completed the hiring process, that referrer was entered in a drawing for the gift card. Walker gained eight employees through the raffle. “It was successful, and I would do it again,” she says.

Reevaluate job requirements

Currently, Pittsburgh Public Schools requires employees to have a high school diploma or GED. While Walker understands that administrators want to underscore the value of education, she plans to ask that that requirement be reexamined in light of the staff shortage. “I have people I know would be perfect for the job, but you find out they don’t have a GED or diploma,” she says.

Elevate job descriptions

Three years ago, Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) in New York updated the dining department’s job descriptions, many of which had been written 30 years before. “The times had changed, the work had changed, the equipment had changed—but the descriptions hadn’t,” says Don LaFlam, senior director of operations. They changed titles such as “production coordinator” to “sous chef” and “salad worker” to “garde manger.” The department reworked job descriptions for versatility, too, so that the former salad worker could handle hot food when needed. “We wanted to make all our employees Swiss army knives, and also help them round out their skill set so they can continue to grow in the organization,” LaFlam says.

Add skills tests

Some people can fluff their way through a job interview—but it’s harder to fake those kitchen skills. RIT recently added multihour in-kitchen tests as part of the hiring process. Leaders are screening not only for culinary abilities, but also cleanliness, organization, positive attitude and willingness to work with students (including those from other cultures). One applicant instantly shone during his skills test for a sous chef role, LaFlam says—and has now risen to chef de cuisine for the university’s largest all-you-care-to-eat hall.

Appeal to a higher calling

If union contracts or other limitations keep you from changing formal titles or job descriptions too much, affirming terms are another option. At Grove City, Reiser calls for foodservice “superheroes.” She lets staff know how important they are to the mission of educating students. “I tell them, ‘You guys have the most important job in the school, because if kids don’t have nutrition they can’t learn. Bus drivers and teachers see only a few students. … You guys are superheroes and have the ability to impact the entire school district.’" 

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