September 2003 Edition
Keeping Good People

by Patricia Nicholson

With the Canadian Restaurant and Foodservices Association reporting that more than one million Canadians work in foodservice, it might seem difficult to imagine a shortage of industry recruits. But good people can be hard to find ― and even harder to keep.

David Curry, president and CEO of Hcareers — the largest hospitality job board service in North America — says employee turnover is a big concern for his clients.

"The turnover statistics from the National Restaurant Association in the U.S. still talk about the North American average being 100% turnover per year," he says, explaining that the very high rate is achieved by turning over positions more than once per year. "In other words, filling the same server position twice in a year. And that creates an overall average of 100%."

The amount of business lost to retention problems is unquantifiable, Curry says.

"It’s very expensive," he says, adding that it is not just the loss of a position, but the loss of potential business through decreased customer service and even loss of other employees who do not wish to take on extra work to cover the vacancy. "Not to mention it can take, depending on the level of person, literally months to replace someone."

A study commissioned by the Canadian Tourism Human Resources Council (CTHRC) in 2001 indicated that labour shortages were increasing, and positions were becoming more difficult to fill. At that time, a cook/chef was the toughest to hire, with an average recruiting time of 41 weeks. Foodservice managers and supervisors were also difficult to replace, taking up to 38 weeks to hire. Servers averaged about five weeks recruiting time.

Statistics Canada data indicate that 42% of foodservice workers are part-time employees and that 42.5% are under the age of 25. CTHRC president Wendy Swedlove points out that entry-level wages are low.

"Consequently those jobs attract very young people, some of them still in high school, who are looking for part-time work and a little extra spending money. Clearly that’s not a person who is going to stay for a long time," Swedlove says. "Consequently you’ve got high turnover."

Swedlove says the industry needs to do a better job of letting employees know that there are opportunities beyond the entry level. "Saying, look, this is the job you’re doing now. But if you stay with us, these are the opportunities for full-time, career-oriented work," she says. "And for many who do not want to sit at a desk in an office all of their lives, this industry has plenty to offer that is fun and exciting and well paid."

The first problem is attracting the right staff at the outset.

"Unfortunately we have a big problem in our industry where there are not a lot of people dedicating their lives to the industry as a profession. And that is definitely affecting the overall problem about recruitment, retention and quality of employee," says Curry, whose company runs the Hcareers.ca Web site.

Work environment is a good place to focus retention efforts, Curry says.

"Continue to improve the work environment for the actual employee so that there are as many good benefits as there can be, there is as much flexibility as there can be, and that there is as much respect in the workplace as can possibly be given to employees."

He also cites training as a very important factor in retention.

"If you give someone as many new skills as you possibly can," he says, "there’s going to be a level of respect built up there and a level of job satisfaction that they wouldn’t have ― even if they’re not being highly paid for it.”

Environment and training are also key issues for Brian Floody, chair designate of the British Columbia Restaurant and Foodservices Association and a professor in the Hospitality and Tourism program at Vancouver Community College.

"Work atmosphere is huge for younger people," says Floody. For this group, mentorship can mean more than money. "If they feel that they’re valued and their learning curve is kept up, normally they’re fairly happy people. Especially if they feel they can sit down and talk to the management."

He stresses that training is an ongoing effort, not something that stops after the first three weeks.

"The best managers in this business understand that the first thing they should be doing is replacing themselves. If they could teach their staff everything there is to know, their job becomes much easier," Floody says. "And they’re staff works much better. They get empowered and feel that they’re trusted."

Bill Lougheed, professor of human resources at Ryerson University’s School of Hospitality and Tourism Management, says bonus systems and benefits are good retention strategies, adding that benefits aren't necessarily dental coverage and prescription drugs. They can be recognition programs or rewards such as flexible schedules, or the kinds of perks that clubs, hotels or other hospitality businesses may be able to offer staff members. Lougheed cites uniforms, shoe allowances, recreational activities, use of facilities, a good staff food program, or discounts at the rest of the chain as examples.

He also stresses the importance of exposing employees to examples of success in the organization, and offering opportunities to follow those examples.

"Show people what they need to become a manager," Lougheed says, adding that desirable jobseekers are often looking for a management training program.

Beyond in-house training, formal educational opportunities can also encourage employees. Ryerson offers fast-track courses for industry people that can "help complement those who have worked hard and gone up the ladder," Lougheed says.

"A lot of companies are doing it because their most capable and able individuals don't have formal education," he says. Off-site programs can help bring them up to the level of what employers are looking for in management candidates.

Lougheed also notes that less prosperous times don’t mean you can ignore the turnover issue.

"You want to retain your best employees even when you’re laying off," Lougheed says. How an organization works in times of crisis, how it tries to look after its employees to avoid layoffs make a big impression. Measures such as reduced hours, shared work, and offering part time instead of full time work can save another 25% of jobs in tough times, Lougheed says.

"There's a big difference between a pink slip on your locker and a company meeting where everyone is told 'this is what we're doing to try to retain you,'" Lougheed says. It is an opportunity to build on loyalties and trust, because those openings will come back, and you’d like your staff to come back, too.

Remember that people interested in hospitality careers are looking around for good places to work. Lougheed recommends having a presence at career fairs and school recruiting programs even if you may not have immediate openings, because you want top recruits to think of your organization as a place they want to be. "You have to get your name in front of people," he says.

And once you’ve got good people, retention is an ongoing effort.

"The thing that costs you the most money in this industry is labour costs, and the thing that costs you the most money about labour costs is retraining people that have left," Floody says. "So the more that we understand that it’s critically important to keep people, the better off we’re going to be." ยจ