Workforce

How labor woes may impact the future of college dining

The National Association of College and Universities Foodservices’ 2030 and Beyond report identified labor as a challenge for the industry moving forward. Here’s a look at what else the report revealed as it pertains to labor.
foodservice workers
The report revealed that foodservice operators may want to turn to technology to solve labor concerns. |Photo: Shutterstock.

Labor, particularly attracting and retaining labor, has been a pressing challenge in the foodservice industry for quite some time. As foodservice professionals look toward the future, it’s no surprise that labor concerns aren’t going anywhere. That at least, is according to the National Association of College and Universities Foodservice’s 2030 and Beyond report, which identified labor as a concern for the industry moving forward. According to the research, when it comes to labor, foodservice leaders may need to explore the role of technology in mitigating labor issues, the importance of culture and environment in attracting and retaining employees, and the need to appeal to student labor.

The research was collected through focus groups consisting of college and university foodservice leaders, as well as foodservice academics, technology experts and facilities design professionals. The focus groups were developed with the goal of understanding the issues facing foodservice providers today. The team also put together an advisory board with foodservice experts such as Zia Ahmed, senior director of dining services at The Ohio State University and Ken Toong, executive director of dining at the University of Massachusetts.  

Here's five takeaways from the labor focus groups.

1. Technology as a solution to labor woes

The focus groups examined technology as it pertains to labor challenges and the role it may play in solving them. For instance, the report urges foodservice leaders to consider the role of robotics in helping labor.

One example of this is the recent popularity of smart vending options, which have expanded their ability to offer a wide range of foods including nutritious options. Concepts like Blendid, an automated smoothie kiosk and SavorEat’s plant-based robot chef are popping up more often on college campuses.

However, another consideration, pointed out in the report, is the need for new technical positions to deal with the new technology, which causes another labor woe of its own.

And yet, technology provides answers elsewhere with concepts such as online ordering which eliminates the need for a person at the point of service. And autonomous marketplaces have been popping up more often. For example, Amazon’s Just Walk Out technology has been popping up on more college campuses.

2. When it comes to attracting labor, it’s not just about pay

While of course pay is going to play a role in attracting labor, the report reveals that it’s not just about pay. Employees are looking for benefits as well as pay, and it could be valuable to make the job seem exciting.

In a panel at last year’s MenuDirections conference, three graduating students from The Ohio State University’s Hospitality Management program took to the stage to discuss what the future workforce looks for in a job. The panelists revealed that while fair wages are top of mind, worthwhile benefits also play a role in what they’re looking for from employers.

Another consideration for employees is professional development, so it could be valuable to teach transferrable skills as well as include a path to management through mentorship programs.

3. Appealing to student labor

 One challenge that was discussed in the focus groups was finding student employees that are willing to work the needed hours. One solution was to create a hybrid work model that may work better with students’ busy schedules. Another challenge is the idea that it appears that students don’t want to work, so teams have to get creative with the way in which they are recruiting. The research noted that student workers are often looking for the social aspects of the work and often want short shifts. The University of Illinois tried out this idea with two-hour ‘microshifts.’ The microshifts were so successful that the team has plans to roll the concept out to a second dining center.

4. And of course, paying fair wages

Paying fair wages is of course vital in attracting labor. The focus group discussed increasing wages and trying out concepts such as same-day pay or demand-driven pay.

5. An emphasis on being efficient and effective

The research revealed a need for operations to become more efficient and effective. This can be done through only offering certain programs in certain locations and offering limited hours to determine the optimal service hours. Another option is through more grab and go offerings.