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Trend Watch: Talent search

The foodservice industry strives to identify and retain quality employees

Property of SeaFood Business magazine
By Lauren Kramer
October 01, 2007

One of the biggest challenges the restaurant industry faces as it enters its 10th year of continued growth with an average of 250,000 jobs added each year is recruiting and retaining employees.

According to the National Restaurant Association's 2007 forecast, 46 percent of quick-service operators and one-third of full-service operators report seeing fewer applicants for hourly positions and a decline in the number of qualified job applicants than they did two years ago. That means it is taking longer to fill job vacancies, a concern given the industry's expansion.

An estimated 12.8 million Americans will be employed in the foodservice industry in 2007, up from 12.5 million in 2006. The NRA projects that 2 million jobs will be added over the next decade, with employment reaching 14.8 million in 2017.

So, where are all the job applicants? In part, the shrinking labor pool can be attributed to changes in the teen labor force. Half of the restaurant industry employees today are under age 25, and 30 percent are between 15 and 19 years old. But only 43.7 percent of 16- to 19-year-old Americans participated in the workforce in 2006, about 10 percent lower than a decade ago.

"That piece of the pie is predicted to grow 0.3 percent in the next 10 years, literally no growth at all," says Teresa Siriani, president of People Report, a Dallas business analytics company focused on the restaurant industry.

"This group of people is opting out of the workforce because of all the choices they have. They're facing extreme competition to get into college, but their parents are also allowing them to choose not to work. Sixty percent of present-day boomers were working at that age, but today in the same group we're in the 40 percent range. That's a huge issue for hospitality because the 16-to-24 age group constitutes 50 percent of the workforce."

Chip Bone, VP of the Florida Restaurant & Lodging Association Educational Foundation, suspects the problem may lie in a negative perception of how people get treated in the restaurant industry.

To counter this perception, 
in 1997 the NRA launched 
ProStart, a program for students in grades 11 and 12 that explains the value of a foodservice career. Approximately 45,000 high school students in 45 states and territories are involved with ProStart, which gives high school students some restaurant-type training so they can graduate to assistant restaurant managers and do a better job of managing employees later in their careers.

"Restaurants are growing so fast, yet there is a low perception of restaurant jobs, and restaurant training is not where it needs to be," Bone says. "ProStart is about combating that, providing motivation for young people who are considering going into this field."

Florida's ProStart program is the largest in the United States, with a $1 million budget and 18,000 students enrolled in 192 high schools. The schools purchase a two-year curriculum that covers everything from marketing to accounting, culinary to dining-room management. ProStart partners with culinary schools and restaurants to provide paid job experience opportunities for those students, as well as training for their teachers.

"While we have no quantifiable numbers, we have heard anecdotally that this program is improving restaurant recruitment and retention in [Florida]," says Bone. "Our restaurant members are telling us that these students are coming to work for them, and that this program is really affecting kids' lives."

At Legal Sea Foods, Executive Director of Recruiting and Development Janet Sotheby says the 3,600-employee company is trying to adapt hiring practices. "In the past we looked for people with similar experiences to what we needed, but now we're looking for more talent-based selection," she explains. Legal hired Kenexa to conduct in-company research and identify traits that were common among its successful employees.

"As of spring 2007, we look for those traits and talents in our interview and selection process," she says. "For example, one of our big focuses is on guest relationship. If you've got that talent, we'll teach you the mechanics of waiting tables. We're opening it up to all sorts of industries and age groups, including older and mature people, not just college kids looking for part-time work."

To attract and retain employees you have to create a company culture that embraces its staff and provides quality incentives for them, says Aaron Noveshen, founder of The Culinary Edge, a restaurant industry consultancy in San Francisco.

"Look at In-&-Out Burger," he suggests. "The chain is renowned for paying some of the highest wages in the industry, and gets some of the highest ratings for happiness on the job, treating employees with respect and creating a fun workplace. Higher pay often does equate to a better experience for people."

Daily communication and recognition are other keys to a happy workforce, according to Mary M. Adolf, president and COO of the NRA's Educational Foundation.

"Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. promotes its open-door policy as a way to ensure that staff is informed on what is going on around the company, as well as how they are developing personally," she says. "Twice-daily shift meetings, weekly manager meetings, bi-weekly trainer meetings and regular round-table meetings are all of the ways 
Bubba Gump keeps their employees connected."

The NRA's Educational Foundation SPIRIT Awards program recognizes foodservice operations with exceptional employee programs in place.

"Emphasize the importance of your workforce to your bottom line," she advises restaurants with recruitment and retention challenges. "Acknowledge that without them, your company cannot succeed. Make sure you are providing your employees with a career and not simply a job by providing them with the tools they need to succeed both professionally and personally."

Siriani agrees. "Churn and burn is a stigma of our industry that we don't believe has to be a part of it. The issue is: What are companies doing to reach the workforce and engage their hearts, heads and minds? This is a great time for the restaurant industry to talk about the beauty and flexibility of working in the industry."


Contributing Editor Lauren Kramer lives in British Columbia


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