How one college's foodservice team handles being shortstaffed

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FoodService Director recently spoke with foodservice operators across the U.S. to see how they’re dealing with today’s labor difficulties. One was Patrick Beach, foodservice director at William Rainey Harper College in Palatine, Ill.. Here are his thoughts.

FSD: What’s your general short- and long-term outlook in terms of staffing to support your program?

PB: Both short- and long-term prospects are poor. Short-term prospects are [scarce] within the large city-suburban markets. The business cycle is very high, and demographic availability to support our traditional employee pool is bad. Looking long term, either stable or declining numbers will occur until the children of millennials [are old enough to be eligible for] our potential work pool. Even with the declining retail environment, our candidates view our industry not as a viable option for a variety of reasons.

FSD: What is the single biggest challenge to staffing at your operation?

PB: Millennials [make up] 35% of the labor market, and inflation forecasts don’t look promising. Wage inflation due to the changing market will be combined with inflation for other prime costs (food and beverage), along with increasing indirect costs, such as real estate and utilities.

FSD: What hiring channels/platforms do you tap to find the best candidates?

PB: We still use traditional channels (on-site job postings) very intensively, as the “capture rate” is high. Relatively new recruiting channels cast a wide net, but without results.

FSD: What is your impression of artificial intelligence, and how do you think it will affect staffing in the future?

PB: AI is the solution. As we end up paying higher wages, AI’s value is increasing. We need higher performance on the part of recruiting and selection.

FSD: How are you engaging staff to incentivize them and, ultimately, retain their services?

PB: We are engaging, mostly without success. When attached to large organizations (Sodexo, Compass), we offer very sophisticated engagement programs. Nevertheless, with most of us, 10% to 20% being understaffed, urgent matters push aside engagement efforts. Work-life enhancement is part of the objective—making our industry “fun.”

FSD: Do you find that getting to know staff—aspects of their lives that make them feel wanted and part of the team—is a subtle but effective technique to increase their drive to perform, and how do you carry it out?

PB: Many opportunities exist in our industry to get to know staff closely. Emotional intimacy as a result of long shifts, high pressure and mutual dependence fosters close relations. Capitalizing on these for business purposes is a byproduct.

FSD: What has been your greatest staffing success story over the past few years?

PB: One of our part-time hourly hires is currently our second in command.

FSD: What sacrifices have you had to make to deal with a shorthanded workforce?

PB: Our front-line supervisors and unit administrator are relegated to doing work usually performed by hourly personnel.

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