Booker T. Washington High School isn’t the only school facing a shortage of cafeteria workers right now. But it may be the only one hiring culinary arts students to fill the gap.
The Escambia County, Florida school had only two permanent employees manning the cafeteria at the start of the academic year. When school food services director Jaleena Davis, MS, RD brought up the issue with Elizabeth Gilmore, the school’s culinary arts instructor, Gilmore suggested seeing if any of her students might be interested in helping out. Nine juniors and seniors them said yes.
Many of the students have goals of working in kitchens professionally after graduating. Joining the school’s cafeteria staff gives them an opportunity to get real-world training while getting paid. “It’s not just experience working in a kitchen, it’s also learning how to be an employee. They’re learning about working as a team and how to plan ahead,” Davis says. “And because they’re working at our school, transportation isn’t an issue. It’s a convenient way for them to have a job.”
The student hires participated in a new employee training sessions that had already been scheduled to take place right before the start of the school year. Many of the seniors were already ServSafe certified; the students that weren’t received their certification during the training.
Photo credit: Escambia County Schools
Photo: Joining the school’s cafeteria staff gives them an opportunity to get real-world training while getting paid.
Students come in to work during their free periods. “Some can work one period, some can work five. They put on uniforms and are treated like a traditional staff member,” says Davis. “They work the serving line, point of sale, assemble breakfast bags, anything we need to have done, they can do it.” Perhaps most important, they’re learning how to problem solve in a fast-paced environment. “One minute they have plenty of pizza and then they’re running low, and they have to think quickly to get more pizza in the oven to make sure we don’t run out,” Davis says.
Gilmore works closely with the school’s on-site cafeteria manager to stay on top of the cafeteria’s needs and help ensure that the student employees have a handle on the small details that are integral for running a federally funded school meal service. “Even something as simple as a reimbursable meal, if a student employee is working POS, we talk about why a student customer has to pick up three of the five items for their tray,” Davis explains.
Without the student employees, the lack of full-time workers would have had a significant impact on meal service. “The shortage means longer wait time for students and not offering as many options because we don’t have the manpower to produce them,” Davis says. “Having student employees allows us to offer the variety and keep food hot and fresh as students come down the line.” Having student employees work the front line also frees up time for the cafeteria manager to stay on top of paperwork needed to keep the cafeteria operations as a whole running smoothly.
Davis estimates that the part-time hours performed by the nine student employees adds up to the work of what six full-time employees would be able to do. Still, she sees the labor shortage problem as a long-term one. “There are more work-at-home opportunities that people are taking advantage of, and private companies can offer better salaries. Even with the benefits we’re able to offer, it’s going to be hard for us to compete.” And for now, she doesn’t have any other strategies for filling the gap. “We’re just trying to reach out to everybody, in the newspaper, on TV and social media, handing out cards, trying everything to bring people in,” she says.
Like with any new role, though, there’s been a learning curve. “For many of these students, it was their first job,” Davis says. But in all, the initiative has been a big success: They’re doing a good job, says Davis, and they enjoy the work and are excited to be earning a paycheck. “They love it and they plan to do it for the full school year,” she says.
What’s more, bringing employees in as students has the potential to build an entirely new pool of future full-time staffers. “As we look to the labor force in the future, if we can grow our own, the students might stay with us and see the opportunities for promotion,” Davis says.