Washington Restaurant Market Watch: Finding Employees in a Tight Labor Market

Washington Restaurant Market Watch: Finding Employees in a Tight Labor Market https://wahospitality.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/employees0616a.jpg

By Paul Schlienz

You’ve heard it before: It’s a jobseeker’s market.

That’s great news if you’re one of the many college students entering the workforce after graduation. It’s also glad tidings if you’re among the unemployed, but if you’re an employer, it’s a challenge.

With many more job openings than there were in the depths of the Great Recession, employers are having to rethink how they approach recruiting and staffing.

Matthew Cecil, founder of Industry, an online professional network for hospitality industry employees, minces no words in describing the seriousness of the problems many restaurants and hotels face as they attempt to attract new workers to fill job openings.

“It’s not a crisis,” said Cecil. “It’s more of an epidemic. It’s not tied to a geographic location. We’ve seen staffing problems not only in the U.S., but in the entire world.”

According to Cecil, a key factor in the industry’s staffing woes is a 72 percent turnover rate – 6 percent higher than last year.

Additionally, Cecil feels the hospitality industry does a poor job of beating its own drum when communicating its many opportunities and career potential to prospective employees.

Amaan Kurji, chief operating officer of the Lynnwood-based 360° Hotel Group, also sees problems in recruiting employees.

“I wouldn’t call it a crisis,” said Kurji. “But it is more challenging to find quality candidates for mid-scale limited service properties outside of the urban core as they face increasing competition for Millennial to Gen Z candidates from the tech sector and the larger Downtown Seattle hotels where the rapidly increasing minimum wage puts pressure on these suburban hotels.”

The 360° Hotel Group is responding to these challenges with some significant innovations in its recruiting methods.

“Our current team members are our best ambassadors and recruiters, so referral bonuses and incentives can play a big role,” said Kurji. “The really big shift for us though is from passive to reactive candidate sourcing, like job postings, to more proactive candidate sourcing by taking a more active role in identifying talent and capacity in other sectors and ensuring that we have a strong value proposition to attract them to us.”

Being proactive, for Kurji, includes encouraging his employees to reach out to employees they encounter at other businesses, like restaurants, who provide excellent service, suggesting that they apply at the 360° Hotel Group.

Much further from the booming Seattle metropolitan area market, Elizabeth Russell, human resources manager at the Alderbrook Resort, in Mason County, has not seen anywhere near the difficulties in recruiting staff that many hospitality establishments are experiencing in the more urbanized parts of the Puget Sound region.

Nevertheless, she is keenly aware of the need to strike while the iron is hot while dealing with jobseekers’ in the current market.

“Timeliness is a big factor,” said Russell. “If you don’t get back quickly with a job applicant, you’ll find they’ve taken another job. This is especially true with good candidates.”

Alderbrook is also revamping its recruitment approach, increasing its use of social media, encouraging employee referrals and completely eliminating paper applications with a new online application process.

On the quick-service restaurant end of the hospitality industry, Jasmine Donovan, vice president of operations at Dick’s Drive-In, a much loved Seattle area institution, is also feeling the effects of a tighter labor market, despite a well-known history of offering higher-than-average wages and an extraordinary benefits package that includes college tuition reimbursement.

“More jobs are available, so it is more of a struggle to find employees,” said Donovan. “Because of the higher minimum wage, in Seattle, now everyone else is more in line with us.”

Ivar’s, the Seattle-based seafood chain that includes both full-service and quick-service restaurants, raised its minimum wage at its restaurants outside Seattle in order to stay competitive in its recruiting.

“Outside of Seattle, we’ve raised our pay as well – to $11 per hour,” said Patrick Yearout, Ivar’s director of recruiting and technology. “That has helped. It’s a definite plus outside Seattle. Before we even place an ad, we’re very careful to understand what the competition is offering.”

Ivar’s recruitment program includes reaching out to social service organizations that help disadvantaged people find jobs. It also encourages its own staff to provide referrals with $100 bonuses for an employee who stays at Ivar’s for 90 days or more.

“We’ve tried to make it as easy as possible to apply,” said Yearout. “If they want to turn in a written application, great. If they want to email us or apply online, that works, too.”

Despite all of Ivar’s efforts to mount an effective recruitment program, Yearout still struggles with recruitment problems that would have been unthinkable in the depths of the Great Recession when jobs were much scarcer.

“It’s even hard to get people to show up for interviews – even higher level people,” Yearout lamented.

Yearout spends a great deal of time talking with his employees to find out how Ivar’s can recruit more effectively.

“I ask what attracted them to Ivar’s and what job seekers are interested in,” said Yearout. “You have to do what you can to stand out from the competition and highlight those things that make you special.”