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At the University of North Texas, an emphasis is put on cross training so that available staff can always be allocated efficiently to where they’re most needed.

Foodservice operators struggle to find labor, fill open positions

With unemployment at near-historic lows, finding and retaining staff is getting harder—and more expensive! Here’s how onsite dining operators are meeting this challenge.

Almost no one disputes that low unemployment is a good thing for the country as a whole, but it also means that labor costs rise as employers compete for the available workers, and with fewer candidates to choose from, they sometimes also have to settle for lower quality.

We spoke to a cross section of operators in the markets covered by FM to find if and how their departments have been affected by the current labor situation and what they’re doing to attract and retain quality employees and/or reduce their labor needs.

Not surprisingly, most operators across all segments with whom we spoke say the situation has impacted them, though the level of the crisis varied with the local economy. In New Jersey, for example, where the nearby New York City mega-market—as well as a new Amazon warehouse operation only a few miles away—is vacuuming up loose workers, the dining department at Robert Wood Johnson (RWJ) Hospital is holding its own thanks to the loyalty of its bedrock permanent staff, but a 15% vacancy rate, especially in part-time positions, is taxing Nutrition Services Director Tony Almeida, who says, “2019 has been a really challenging year to fill openings—we’ve hired three utility workers but have four to five openings—there’s nobody out there!”

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And even when someone is found and hired, Almeida adds, the rules have changed. “In the old days,” he says, “you might take more of a disciplinary approach, but now you might just give them a warning because once you get them in the door you want to hold on to them.”

Almost clear across the country, at the Missoula Schools in Montana, Food & Nutrition Supervisor Stacey Rossmiller reports that “positions are open longer” in her district. “This year I think I’ve offered five different positions and people declined them,” she says. “One stayed open for two and a half months before I even had an applicant for it.”

Athens County in Southeast Ohio has a higher than average unemployment rate, but Ohio University Dining is still straining to fill slots with more than just bodies. “It’s getting the right person,” Director of OU Dining Rich Neumann laments. “We could have four openings and an applicant pool of over 30 candidates, but we still have trouble coming up with four qualified ones.”

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Neumann also echoes a sentiment we heard from several college dining directors, which is that student workers are no longer as available as they once were. He says today’s students seem more intent on graduating on time because of the rising cost of college, so they aren’t as willing to commit hours to working that could be used on schoolwork.

“I think we boomers and Gen Xers have to understand that while 10 to 15 years ago a student didn’t mind working 20 hours a week. Now eight to 10 is about all you’re getting because they have different priorities,” says Dave Annis, dining director at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “I now have 40% more working for me than 10 years ago because they each work fewer hours.”

Annis notes that one traditionally rich source of student labor—international students whose visas usually prohibit them from working off campus—have been declining in numbers recently, diminishing that labor source.

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Healthcare foodservice specialist HHS competes for workers by emphasizing its values in serving the sick and elderly, along with career growth opportunities in the organization.

The Great Talent Search

So what are operators doing to secure labor in this tight market? It starts with retaining who you have, most say, and fortunately, vested benefit packages at many institutions incent veteran full-time employees to stay. However, younger employees, part-timers and temps don’t have the same incentive, and these are the areas where operators are having the most trouble competing with commercial employers like the Amazon center near RWJ Hospital.

Offering competitive compensation packages is difficult because pay scales and benefit packages are generally determined by higher administrators than dining directors in most institutions, and they often either don’t cover part-timers and temps or are too expensive, suggests Susan Glover, food & nutrition services director for the Clay County District Schools in Florida.

“As with other employers, health insurance is very expensive,” she says. “In my 20 years with the district, I have seen a continual increase in premiums. In school food service most of our employees work less than the typical eight-hour day, which compounds the issue. A four-hour cafeteria assistant who is providing family coverage wouldn't make enough to cover the premium. Before insurance rates soared, people wanted to work for the district because of the good insurance plan,” but not so much anymore.

To compete, directors now emphasize other benefits over which they have more control, such as work environment, job satisfaction and career advancement opportunities.

“Many talented food service people and culinarians are unaware of the quality and diverse cuisines prepared on college campuses,” suggests Camp Howard, director of dining at the University of Montana. “Also, the ability to have time off for holidays and slower time in the summer is an enticing aspect in recruiting for our program.”

Younger people, meanwhile, “want a connection to the community and want to feel what they are doing has relevance and is helping others, and we want them to understand that what we do does that,” says Don Donagrandi, associate director of residential dining at Michigan State University. “We also really emphasize the leadership opportunities we offer, and how the skills they learn with us, like time management, translate to whatever job they get after they graduate.”

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Finding workers is more of an issue at the school level than in production at Missoula Schools, thanks to the district’s efficient central production facility.

At the University of North Texas, “our marketing team put together a video that’s especially [targeted at] people in hotels and restaurants to show the quality of life we offer, [such as] not having to work every weekend or holiday,” says Peter Balabuch, executive director of dining.

“We have our local managers going out to community centers, churches, even Walmarts to talk to people about what we do and why we do it and our values to get our name out there,” offers Dirk Noteboom, president of culinary for healthcare specialist management company HHS. “We talk about the job environment and also the growth opportunities.”

HHS offers the Rouxbe online culinary training course used by major hospitality chains like Marriott and Ritz Carlton for employees showing an aptitude. “So far have had about 30 go through it in last two years, 26 successfully, and 20 have been promoted to directors or chefs in our larger units,” Noteboom proudly notes.

“One thing I’ve started to do that I haven’t before, and which is starting to work, is a CAMBA app [an online job recruitment site],” says Donette Worthy, director of child nutrition for the Tuscaloosa County Schools in Alabama, “but instead of job openings I talk more in team terms, because we’re very team-oriented. So instead of saying we have job opening, I say we have ‘team openings’ and I list the schools [where there are openings].”

Worthy also posts on Facebook and “that has worked tremendously—we’ve had more people saying, ‘Hey, where can I apply?’ Last week I did a Facebook live about jobs and about job openings and we had more applicants from those two things than we’ve had in a while.”

At the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, hiring is hampered by time-consuming formalities, says former Associate Director of Nutrition Services Mike Folino (Folino left OSU Wexner to join Akron Children’s Hospital as director of support services shortly after speaking to FM). “A dishwasher can be hired off the street by a restaurant and start working, while we have to have a formal HR interview, a drug test, a background check and so on, so it takes a month to get somebody on board and by that point they’ve taken another job,” he laments.

To skirt that obstacle, OSU Wexner has been concentrating on targeting individuals who value the benefit package that comes with working at the hospital, even for 30 hours a week, such as someone who needs health insurance and a tuition tradeoff while finishing their education.

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Almost everything Ohio University serves is from scratch, “and we’ll do everything we can to keep it that way,” says Director Rich Neumann, despite increased difficulties in securing labor in the current economic climate.

In the Hillsborough County Public Schools in Florida, a similar institutional problem hampers recruitment, says MaryKate Harrison, general manager of student nutrition services, in that applicants have to pay upfront for the fingerprinting that employment with the district requires—a $90 outlay that is a real hardship for many low-level workers.

“I had suggested that they just take it off their pay if they’re hired, but then people would leave before paying it back, so the district is not doing that anymore, and now we’re back to them paying [upfront], which is a real disincentive,” she laments.

Still, the district presses on, looking everywhere it can for labor, including job fairs held at the many military installations in the area for spouses and families.

Cura Hospitality, a unit of Elior North America, knows it has a hard time competing with commercial employers on wages and benefits, but it makes up for it by marketing the nurturing nature of its mission and the career opportunities its larger organization can offer, says Mindy Muhonen Weis, Cura’s talent acquisition manager.

“It’s more than just providing a job, which they can get at Amazon,” she says. “We need to show that there’s a real reason to come work for us.”

As part of that effort, Cura partners with organizations like a tech college that has a culinary program, culinary training programs that serve disadvantaged clients and even a company that trains international refugees for healthcare positions, giving them internships and post-graduation employment with the company.

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Reducing labor, not service

When asked what they were doing, if anything, to reduce the number of labor hours they require, most directors were hesitant, noting that to effectively operate dining in their kind of environments, customer interaction is critical. Or, as Almeida puts it, “Foodservice is a people business, so there’s only so much you can automate.”

“One thing we are very strict on is the fact that at the end of the day, we are not going to punish our customers by reducing food quality, hours, locations, etc., because of employee staffing,” elaborates Ryan Wheeler, field marketing specialist for Sodexo at Liberty University. “Students pay a lot of money for their meal plan, and we are adamant about always giving them a great experience and being responsible with the money they invest into their meal plan.”

Liberty has implemented some labor reducing strategies, such as deploying over a dozen kiosk ordering units across campus, and it will introduce mobile ordering this spring, but the main reasons for implementing such technology are increasing line speeds and providing better service, while “labor reduction we see as just a side benefit,” Wheeler suggests.

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Remote ordering technology such as this unit in the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center help reduce labor needs but also personal customer interaction, something many dining directors are wary of.

OSU Wexner has been a leader in deploying self-order technology, but even there, face-to-face interaction remains the ideal, says Folino. “When you get into these tight labor markets, it forces you to be creative and to re-evaluate how you manage your operations, so we’ve made tweaks to reduce labor,” he explains. However, he’s looking forward to “when labor becomes more available again, so we can offer more of those extras.”

It’s in back-of-the-house meal production that automation might make the most inroads in the near future, because it doesn’t affect customer interaction as much, operators say.

“We’re looking at robotics [in the back of the house] as a way to [free up] more labor for up front,” suggests Michigan State’s Donagrandi. “Right now, we’re working with a senior engineering class on a silverware sorter, a repetitive job that takes a lot of labor,” but, he adds, “robotics is hard to implement here because college dining isn’t as cookie cutter as, say, a McDonald’s” where a lot of routine tasks might be automated.

“I’m not sure a robotic arm flipping burgers is going to help us right now,” adds HHS’s Noteboom, summarizing the general consensus. Still, something has to be done when labor availability falls below a minimum threshold, and this is a daily challenge at some locations.

“We do not reduce hours or locations [but] we occasionally change the menu to ensure staffing can provide meals on time,” offers Laura Benavidez, executive director of food & nutrition services for Boston Public Schools. For example, “in some locations where we have a full salad bar that is served by our staff, we are exploring ways to have students serve themselves, so that it frees up staff.”

Surprisingly, some operators are actually going in the opposite direction despite the labor crunch.

“We actually need more people because we’re going to more scratch prep,” says Allison Monbleau, director of Palm Beach County School Food Service.

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Michigan State is exploring technology solutions—even working with a senior engineering class on an automated silverware sorter—and has piloted pre-order with a campus Starbucks unit through Grubhub, but it doesn’t want to lose too much human contact with customers.

To find workers, her department has not only done online marketing and put ads in papers also but solicited referrals from district parents to see if they know anyone who might be interested. This year, Monbleau is looking at holding a job fair for graduating high school seniors looking either for a temporary job before going to college or even a permanent position.

Even if such sources as job fairs, online ads and even temp agencies produce candidates, they often are less skilled than has been the norm, so special accommodations are often required.

The Dallas ISD, for instance, has over the past year implemented several new strategies ranging from an increase in minimum starting pay and an employee orientation program to boost retention rates among new employees to a temporary employee training program, says Michael Rosenberger, executive director of food & nutrition services.

“We currently use several temporary employee agencies to help us fill open positions,” he explains. “While these agencies are valuable partners of ours, we realize that their employees are not typically well-versed in quantity food preparation nor in school food service operations, [so]  in order to boost the effectiveness of temporary employees, we introduced a temporary employee training program” for the 2019-2020 school year that covers 10 topics ranging from district policies and customer service standards to culinary skills and school meal patterns.

But ultimately, it comes down to the reality that onsite dining is a hospitality-intensive endeavor that needs to offer human contact. As Liberty’s Wheeler puts it: “We take a firm stance that memorable customer service and real change always happens within five feet or less, and that mainly comes by employee-guest interaction. Nothing can take the place of a human being going the extra mile to give you a lasting experience.”

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