Getting Creative: Retaining and Growing Great Employees in a Tight Labor Market

Getting Creative: Retaining and Growing Great Employees in a Tight Labor Market

By Paul Schlienz

It’s tough out there.

Employers are facing a challenging environment with a tight labor market where job seekers may just have the upper hand.

According to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, unemployment, which peaked at 10 percent during the Great Recession, is now at 4.3 percent.  This is very low in comparison to the approximately 5.5 percent that is a normal unemployment rate.

And the tight labor market is particularly noticeable in Washington state, especially in the Puget Sound region. There was an increase of jobs in the Seattle-Bellevue-Everett area during the 12 months through April 2017, up by 2.8 percent — the third highest job growth rate in the nation.

With the region’s unemployment rate at a nine-year low, and the statewide jobless rate at an all-time bottom, job seekers really are in the driver’s seat. In response, employers need to get creative in finding and retaining employees.

This is especially true in the hospitality industry, and many restaurants and hotels are finding interesting ways of attracting and retaining employees to help them grow in their jobs.

Go the Extra Mile

“It is a challenging environment,” said Patrick Yearout, Ivar’s director of training and recruitment. “It’s a real challenge in recruiting when you find a good employee, especially if you find a manager you want to retain. And there are always extra costs if you lose employees, especially in Seattle.”

For its part, Ivar’s is one of those employers that are making tremendous efforts to create a great working environment that will encourage employees to stay and make a career out of their jobs.

“Sometimes it involves going the extra mile for special needs,” said Yearout. “We have two employees in our corporate office who are allowed to work flexible hours and also work remotely because they are dealing with serious illnesses in their families. We’ve allowed some employees to donate their vacation days to other employees who needed time off for emergencies.”

Sometimes it’s also a matter of keeping the job interesting.

“If we find out an employee has an interest or hobby, we try to find an outlet for it,” said Yearout. “For example, we have one employee who loves gardening. We find ways of incorporating interests like that.”

Yearout also finds those special, little perks that come from employment can go a long way.

“Managers will often comp the meals of their employees when they are dining with their families at one of our restaurants,” said Yearout. “We also partner with other local companies to provide discounted tickets for our employees to seasonal activities such as ski lift tickets and Wild Waves tickets.”

And nothing helps build employee loyalty more than an employer that goes to bat for its employees when their jobs are threatened.

“I’m sure you’ve heard about all the hubbub recently about Ivar’s losing its lease at Sea-Tac International Airport,” said Yearout. “What you need to know is that we fought really hard to stay there so we could protect the jobs of the 33 Ivar’s employees at the airport. We feel we owe them that much.”

Treat Employees with Respect

Marination, an unusual Hawaiian-Korean restaurant concept with four Seattle locations plus a food truck, goes the extra mile in providing a caring work environment.

“We really believe in treating our employees with respect,” said Roz Edison, one of Marination’s co-owners. “We really try to understand their lives and personal goals. We’re a pretty small business, so it’s easier for us to operate this way than it might be for some of the large corporations. We’re flexible with schedules and look for opportunities to help our employees whenever we can. We do the best we can, given the number of employees we have.”

One of Marination’s most unique policies is its owners’ willingness to help their employees with financial planning, a skill that many employees don’t have and often need.

“We let our employees know we’re available to offer our time,” said Edison. “We’ll help them reach their financial goals. We’ll work with them on developing a savings plan or help them put together a business plan if they have a venture in mind that they’d like to pursue. We have an open-door policy and it’s all optional.”

And all these personal touches work to Marination’s advantage.

“Whenever you can connect with an employee on a personal level, there’s a better chance of a retainer,” said Edison.

Second Chances

If you listen to the radio, there’s a good chance that you may have heard advertisements for a campaign called Grads of Life, which encourages employers to consider hiring people from non-traditional backgrounds that do not include college degrees. Hospitality employers are among those thinking outside traditional recruitment boxes, and nowhere is this trend more evident than in the growing number

of restaurants and hotels that offer second chances to help people rebuild their lives.

One such hospitality employer is Seattle’s Inn at the Market.

“We don’t have official program,” said David Watkins, Inn at the Market’s general manager. ”We have one individual who’s going through the drug court process. In a month or two, he should graduate.”

Graduation is no easy feat. It involves a demanding schedule of coaching and counseling classes, as well as attendance at three Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and three drug tests per week. Inn at the Market, nevertheless, has stood by their employee with all the support it can provide. This includes supporting him in getting his GED to help with his long-term goal of becoming an electrician.

“Our team his taken him under their wing,” said Watkins. “It is gratifying seeing him rebuild his life.”

Watkins is also very interested in the IF Project, a collaboration of law enforcement, currently and previously incarcerated adults and community partners focused on intervention, prevention and reduction in incarceration and recidivism. Among its goals is bringing foodservice training into prisons.

“I think people are beginning to explore those arenas,” said Watkins. “This has been a learning curve for us, but it’s been very worthwhile.”

Treat Adults Like Adults

“We have a high retention rate at our hotel and we’re really proud,” said Audrey McCombs, director of human resources at Seattle’s Mayflower Park Hotel. “We’ve mastered the art of treating adults like adults.”

The hotel has been around for 90 years, and more than a third of their employees have been with the company 10 years or longer.  McComb herself has been with the hotel for more than 20 years, and she attributes the Mayflower Park’s success to a culture of respect and encouragement.

“We honor our employees’ families, we honor their cultures and we honor their needs,”  she said. “We honor every profession under our roof. And when folks want to move up, we will help them. We really treat everyone respectfully.”

“A lot of Millennials like us because we don’t script them, and we honor their individuality,” said McCombs. “We let them be themselves and give them a lot of freedom.”

As a Seattle employer, Mayflower Park is keenly aware that it is in major competition for employees with such giants as Amazon.

“Everyone’s having a challenge finding employees in this tight labor market,” said McCombs. “I can’t even imagine what those hotels that are just opening are going through. It’s most challenging to find cooks and servers at our restaurants. Our greatest recruitment source is our employees. Good long-term folks recommend good long-term folks.”

To encourage potential employees to apply, Mayflower has developed a simplified, user-friendly application.

“We don’t have a complicated online application process,” said McCombs. “We put our ads on Craigslist. Once an applicant applies, they go straight to the manager. People who apply like that. Our philosophy is to keep it simple. Small employers, like our hotel, can do this. At larger hotels, it can be a very complicated process.”

Help People Become All They Can Be

Once you have those great employees you always wanted, a wise business will do all it can to hold on to them. One of those hospitality businesses that is going the extra mile when it comes to employee retention is Hop Jack’s, the Seattle-based restaurant and bar chain serving pub grub, burgers and sandwiches plus signature cocktails.

“Our founder Mark Eggen always stresses that Hop Jack’s is a company that creates opportunity, ” said Jaime Fox, Hop Jack’s director of training. “All of us want to find value in what we’re doing. Restaurants sometimes suffer under an image that much of our work is not a real job that leads somewhere. At Hop Jack’s, however, we let our employees know that this is a real job and a real career where you can grow and be what you want to be.”

Hop Jack’s has developed a unique training program that helps its employees fulfill their ambitions and build careers.

“Every 90 days everyone at Hop Jack’s selects their goals,” said Fox. “These goals can be long-term or short-term. It’s a one-page document. If you want to go to the next level, you have a roadmap. We have that for every position from the kitchen workers to the CEO. And we’ve created leaders this way. We encourage our employees to let us know their passions.”

Fox’s own history with Hop Jack’s shows how jobs with the company can become careers.

“I started as a bartender with Hop Jack’s,” said Fox. “I had 14 years of experience in that field before I ever came to Hop Jack’s. One day our CEO asked me to create a manual for bartenders, and that ultimately led to my current position as director of training.”

One thing for which Hop Jack’s seems to have a unique knack is finding ways to make the process of developing new skills enjoyable rather than a grueling struggle.

“Coming into a restaurant as a manager or being promoted to management from within can be a difficult transition,” said Fox. “With that in mind, we created a Hop Jack’s passport with details on each skill you need to move up in management. It looks exactly like a real passport. You even get stamps on 23 skills. Once you’ve gone through whole thing, you can keep it as a souvenir, just like you would with a real passport that has a lot of stamps from different countries. Our passport makes the process fun and engaging. And in the end, you get tangible proof of achievement.”

Another way that Hop Jack’s holds onto employees is by being concerned with the whole person inside and outside of the workplace.

“Recently, we started wellness bonuses,” said Fox. “We give 50 percent of our bonus on meeting personal professional goals, but the other 50 percent is a wellness goal. If you are over 30 BMI [body mass index], your goal is to go down by one BMI per year. If you’re under 30 BMI, the choice is yours what you want to do, and people end up getting bonuses for doing things like running in triathlons. It’s great watching people lose weight and feel fantastic.

“Our employees know the company is loyal to them, which creates a lot of loyalty to the company. We’re trying to help people become all they can be.”

(Source: Washington Hospitality Magazine, August 2017)