Reimagining restaurant employment
By Andrew HindCOVID-19 Updates Features Business and Operations Staffing hiring recruiting retainment staffing
How to keep your team feeling positive and valued
Restaurants may need to reimagine the nature of employment.
Since the pandemic began in early 2020, restaurants have been chronically understaffed. The hospitality industry has lost 300,000 jobs because of COVID-19, and fewer people are returning to or entering the field. The labour shortage is troubling and, for many restaurants, crippling.
The oft-cited cause of the problem is the CERB and other government benefits. The true reasons are far more complex.
Canada had a labour shortage before the pandemic, a shortage keenly felt in retail and hospitality. COVID-19 simply made matters much, much worse.
“The pandemic turned a service industry into a takeout industry overnight, scaling up and scaling down operations with the guidelines and lockdowns like a switch,” explains Karen Horton, recruitment specialist at Patrice and Associates Specialty Recruiting. “These are unimaginable stressors for a small business.”
Michelle Caine is the Hospitality Management Chair at Centennial College. It’s her job to prepare students for an industry where labour is a very real concern. The subject of employee attraction and retention is one she feels passionate about.
“Over the last 20 months we have seen a few thousand hospitality graduates from Ontario and Canadian hospitality post-secondary programs, yet the industry is still struggling to hire staff,” she says. “I recently read a quote from colleagues at the University of Guelph – School Hospitality, Food and Tourism Management: ‘Is there a labour shortage or attractive job shortage?’ ” It’s a valid question.
“My thoughts are that the industry (that prepared me for a career in academics with valuable leadership experiences and skills) needs to reassess why managers and line staff are not returning,” Caine continues. “In my day, it seemed to be acceptable to say, ‘It’s the restaurant business, the hours are what they are, take it or leave it.’ Well people – young and old – are leaving it.”
But scheduling is only one part of the puzzle. She cites several additional areas of potential concern that may discourage people from pursuing careers in the industry: pay, leadership, opportunity for advancement, supportive growth, education subsidies, mental well being and diversity.
Horton agrees, and notes that the pandemic has only exacerbated underlying problems in the industry.
“Better income and hours are always frequent reasons cited for leaving the restaurant workplace,” she says. “During these COVID years some have had their hours cut significantly and need to find a new employer, while others have been wearing multiple hats, working long hours, and have not yet taken a break. Add to that the issue of uncertainty. Some provinces have been harder hit with closures than others, yet uncertainty is a reason shared across the country.”
“Finally,” Horton adds, “the COVID years have allowed us all to re-evaluate, look for our passions and self-permission to seek out new industries, perhaps related to our education or interests, or take inventory of our best skill sets and apply them to a new sector. However, they have also added resolve to many in hospitality to continue providing excellent service and rise to the challenges.”
What this means is that there is a myriad of reasons people may find employment in the restaurant industry unappealing. There is no easy, one-size-fits-all answer to the matter of staff retention and hiring.
Retaining talented, reliable staff
The good news is that one of the most important elements to employee happiness is also the easiest and least costly to deliver. Studies have repeatedly shown that intrinsic rewards are a key source of motivation, as much as or more than salary. A diverse, healthy work environment where one can develop one’s skill and abilities is a powerful intrinsic reward that bolsters the sense of competence and reinforces our motives for esteem and productivity.
“Staff retention is really about what makes a positive work environment,” Horton offers. “The tone of leadership and culture starts from the top and ripples through to every level. Being a good human, leading by example, and now more than ever keeping the open-door policy to check in with your employees is essential. Showing appreciation and being valued, learning new skills, helping community are important to staff.”
Caine believes the staffing and labour issue will be an issue going forward but suggests pizzeria owners and managers ask themselves some hard questions. The answers may be illuminating and help to create a more appealing work environment
- Why did your last cook or production crew leave or not return after a shutdown?
- How does a floor supervisor treat their hostess or bussers/server assistants?
- What made your last amazing hire amazing?
- What are your organization’s staff rules/policies and procedures? Are they outdated?
- Would you want a loved one or your child to work for your business?
- Would you want your last conversation with an underperforming team member to be on video and shared on social media – were you coaching or degrading?
“Over the last two years we have seen some amazing food and beverage operators change their services quickly with flair and innovation. This industry is resilient, intelligent and accommodating to the guests,” Caine asserts. “However, is there an opportunity to be as flexible, innovative and adaptable with the way food and beverage managers and operators hire? For example, there are three or four generations in the workplace – some staff will text you that they need the day off with an hour notice while others will use the system you put in place: ‘Please inform your manager that you need a day off two days in advance.’ Are you flexible enough for both approaches?”
In light of the current challenging labour market, it may be time to for restaurant operators to review and update their interview/hiring procedures. Is there an opportunity for a job shadow or observation shift where you welcome potential hires in for a (paid) trial service shift for their sake and yours? Are promotion and growth opportunities talked about during the interview? Do other team members get to assess a new candidate? How are staff and managers recognized and celebrated?
Women represent an important demographic that should be targeted to ease labour shortages, according to Horton. “More women will eventually re-enter the workforce once schools are more consistent and the health threat to families is quelled,” she explains. “But women will need to be heard to know how to best help this special group re-enter the workforce.”
Young people have traditionally represented a significant segment of the hospitality industry labour force. Restaurant operators should make contacts at local schools, particularly those with a culinary department, to connect with students. Such relationships may take time to build but can provide a steady pipeline of qualified applicants for future job openings.
Horton recommends some other easy, cost-effective strategies. “Find the employee that is great with social media and get their help to promote your restaurant – perhaps it is a fun TikTok video of how your team makes a great pizza crust or art on a delicious pasta – then post this to bring in new team members who want to learn that skill and be a member of an exciting team,” she says. Other ideas include a postcard photo of a ‘We’re hiring’ sign in with your takeout orders – often your food is being delivered to the areas where your future employees may live – or building relationships with the public by sponsoring a special event.”
Lockdowns and reduced-capacity mandates have led to widespread disillusionment, adding to stressors that were already present in the industry. But there is an opportunity here. Restaurant owners and management should use the timeout to rethink their purpose, to reinvent themselves and the employment model, and to emerge stronger than ever.
Andrew Hind is a freelance writer from Bradford, Ont., specializing in food, history and travel. He is the author of 25 books and the proud father of one.
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