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Seafood University: Seasonal labor pool spans generations

When lining up temporary help, don't overlook young recruits and retirees

It works out best if young, summertime counter help are self-motivated, since training time is limited. - Stephen Heddericg
Joanne Friedrick
September 01, 2005

Whether your peak selling season comes from the fish-driven meals of Lent, seafood platters for holiday parties or summer’s clambakes, chances are you need to bring on extra help from time to time.

Seasonal hiring provides a respite for your regular seafood sales staff, but it also presents some challenges. Where do you find help? How much time and money do you invest in training? Do you view these employees as one-time hires or anticipate that they will evolve into regular part-time or full-time workers?

The answers will depend largely on the individual worker. According to Kim Beasley, corporate spokesperson for Unicru, a Beaverton, Ore., company that processes and evaluates job applicants for clients nationwide, the face of the seasonal worker is changing.

While teenagers are still a big part of the seasonal job market, Beasley says Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers for 2002 (the most recent year for which she had statistics) showed just 57 percent of 16- to 19-year-olds were looking for a summer job — the lowest percentage since 1964.

With fewer teens in the labor pool, says Beasley, employers are having to look at different groups, such as older and retired workers, to fill the need. Hiring retirees can be a smart strategy, she says, especially giving the burgeoning size of this group. Since 1970, she notes, the U.S. population has aged at a rate 600 percent faster than during the previous 35 years.

Additionally, AARP statistics show 79 percent of Baby Boomers — people born between 1946 and 1964 — plan to hold full- or part-time jobs after retirement. And by 2020, one in five workers will be 55 or older.

Despite the changing demographics, some retailers still rely on young people as their primary source of seasonal help. At Finestkind Fish Market in York, Maine, owner Michael Goslin says he hires from six to eight young people for his retail store for the summer.

He says it may take a week or two to get a true feel for an employee.

“We have kids come back as many as three or four years in row,” he says, but that’s the exception, not the rule. “I won’t bring them back unless I have confidence in them,” he adds.

Age and experience should be indicators of good seasonal help, he says, but there are surprises. The very young can often be “real leaders,” he says, as well as self-motivated.

Summer hires don’t receive a lot of training, says Goslin, but learn instead on the job from full-time employees.

“They have to understand the different [seafood] species,” he says, “but are limited in what they know, so we need them to go to others for answers.”

The store cuts all its own fish, which Goslin says is a job best left to experienced help.

“I have to be careful with kids,” he explains. He keeps them away from sharp filleting knives and expensive knife-sharpening machinery.

Beyond teens, Goslin has turned to both retirees and foreign nationals for his workforce.

“I have a retired gentleman who came back from last year. His honesty is above reproach,” says Goslin, adding that the man also “works with a sense of pride.”

What can limit retirees, he says, is the amount they can earn if they are collecting Social Security.

This year Goslin says he didn’t hire any foreign workers because of the lack of affordable housing in his area. But from past experience, he says, foreign workers “are here to make money, so they work harder than the young kids.”

Whether screening young or old candidates, Beasley says there are certain characteristics Unicru looks for when helping retailers hire seasonally.

“We tell our clients to look for people who are fairly independent,” she says, “since there’s not much time for one-on-one training.”

Because of the nature of retail work, she says, the company also asks “environmental” questions related to a potential employee’s ability to stand for longer periods or tolerate the cold, as in refrigerated cases or freezers.

“We make sure the environment is a fit for the applicant,” Beasley explains.

Other factors to consider, she says, is whether the person has worked for you in the past. This can increase the comfort level for both the employee, who already knows a bit about how the retail system works, and the employer, who needs only to update the worker rather than train from scratch.

Beyond the youth and retiree markets, Beasley says, another excellent source of seasonal workers can be found in your own client base. Working with retailers who track such data, Unicru found “customers are more likely to be more successful on the job than almost any other group of employees.”

“This is because customers are generally people who have a strong interest in the company’s business,” says Beasley, “and, as a result, are more knowledgeable, helpful and motivated employees.”

She says one retail client tracked the sales results of frequent shoppers who became employees and found them to be much more effective sales people, averaging $112 per hour in sales versus $26.50 for other employees.

While this example isn’t specific to the seafood department, it makes sense that employees who have an interest in preparing and eating seafood would likely convey that enthusiasm to your customers as well.

Goslin says he has hired the children of good customers in the past, but that can be a double-edged sword. If they do well, it builds business. But if he has to fire the customer’s son or daughter, that business may be lost for good.

While many potential workers come through the door of the seafood shop or supermarket looking for work, Unicru suggests employers also post jobs on Web sites and in places where people typically look for jobs. Posting at schools, for example, may attract teachers who have the summer free. Unicru also suggests advertising open seasonal positions on the back of your cash register receipts or through in-bag flyers.

It’s also worthwhile to encourage your best employees to ask their friends if they are interested in a seasonal job. You may even consider offering a referral bonus that goes into effect after the hiree has been on the job for a set number of weeks.

The key to seasonal hiring is being clear about your needs and seeking workers — young or old — who are self motivated and show a keen interest in your business.

September 2005 - SeaFood Business 

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