Beat the skills shortage!

  • Posted on April 13, 2021 by John Jones

The last year has been tough for the food & drink sector but thankfully things are starting to change. Pubs and restaurants now have a re-opening road map and there is huge pent up demand among the population for getting out and enjoying a meal or drink with friends. However, the past twelve months have seen such unprecedented change that publicans and restaurateurs may now be reviewing their staff structures or needing to recruit new staff in order to open successfully. With a widely acknowledged shortage of hospitality staff in the country, we take a quick look at some tactics for guaranteeing service as usual.

Retaining Staff

It may be a little odd to start an article about finding new staff by talking about retention, but honestly, it is always preferable to retain existing staff rather than recruit new ones. Why? Because the opportunity cost (and the financial cost) of re-hiring is so high. While you are planning adverts, trawling through CVs and interviewing, you’re not doing something else with your limited time, like making sales. Plus, of course, new staff have to be trained, kitted out and mentored – meaning yet more demands on your time and budget. Low staff churn and high retention is your Holy Grail.

This may sound unintuitive, but wages aren’t always the primary driver for informing staff decisions about staying, or going. Sure, rip-off wages will always leave a bad taste in their mouths so fair pay is an essential motivator. But we’re not referring to commodities here; we’re talking about people - they need a range of stimuli and positivities to make them feel loyal.

First and foremost, make the business a nice place in which to work. Nobody wants to hate their workplace, so a pleasant working environment in every respect will go a long way to keeping your best staff with you. It is so important, however, not to decide for yourself what is or what is not an excellent working environment. How many times have you heard about bosses who wholeheartedly believe their environment is wonderful, yet are totally unaware that the staff think differently? Hold individual and staff meetings and ask your team members out right “Is this a good place to work? What can we do better?”.

Team dynamics is also an essential motivation. People love working within bonded teams, in which everyone plays their part. Recruit and build a team whose members’ profiles complement each other, and don’t be afraid to route root out any disruptors (being frank here, you can train-in skills but you can rarely train-out bad attitudes. Don’t tolerate anyone who disrupts your lovingly created team, period.)

If you can’t be the most generous employer on the block when it comes to wages, think about what high value benefits you can give to your employees which are, in truth, of low or little cost to your business. An employee of the week scheme, with you personally handing over a small prize to the winner at a staff gathering is such an easy win, along with being as flexible as you can in things like working hours, shifts and so on. Likewise, don’t overlook staffs’ hidden talents and give them an opportunity to come to the fore. It could be that your kitchen porter is your next sous chef, waiter or manager – but you didn’t know it because you didn’t ask. Give staff a caring environment and the opportunities to shine and you’ll be rewarded a hundred times over in loyalty.

Training

Some employers can be rather ambivalent about training, preferring the hard-core view that an employee can either do they job, or they can’t. The vast majority of successful restaurateurs and publicans will disagree, however. There are some excellent examples of training regimes within the sector, but yours doesn’t have to be so formal that it requires ring binders full of materials or log-ins to online portals.

Have a base-level training scheme commensurate with the role, and stick to it. Essentials like food safety, stock control and using the restaurant booking system are vitally important but training should never be fire & forget. Ask staff where they feel rusty and if necessary show them again. Look out for individual best practice in your establishment, so that you can capitalise on hidden gems of knowledge and roll them out throughout the business (even better, have the best performer in that area do the training – that’s great for their own self-esteem , brilliant for team building and shows you to be a very reasonable boss).

Consider up-skilling and motivating your staff through the apprenticeship or NVQ routes. Not only will your staff feel more engaged, valued and motivated, they’re likely to reward you with their commitment. Plus, of course, you’ll get better performance within your teams from the new skills and knowledge being embedded in the business.

Some hard truths

Staff are the mainstay of any hospitality business. Without them, key functions start to break down, quality of service decreases and ultimately customer experience suffers. However, a business’ staff requirements are in truth rarely static, even if the establishment has had the same structure for years. Before hiring new or replacement staff, take the time to reflect on whether like for like is the best way to go. The majority of times you will know the kind of role you need and the type of person you want to fill it, but before writing out your job description and recruitment advert, just make sure you aren’t missing out on the opportunity to do things differently, to suit the business’ current context and circumstances. A leaver is usually a disappointment, but as that door closes a new one opens.

Finding Staff

Actually locating the right staff for a restaurant or pub can be time consuming and difficult. Contrary to much popular opinion, hospitality staff are not unskilled – far from it – they play a huge role in enhancing the diners’ experiences. That means that the search for staff begins with not looking for “bodies”, but people with the right blend of experience, attitude and skill. That can be surprisingly tricky but thankfully there are a number of ways to identify possible candidates:

Word of mouth. It is important not to overlook the power of your personal networks. As with many things in life, it is often not about what you know, but whom. Ask around among friends and family; does anyone know anyone who might fit the bill? Speak with your suppliers and their reps, because they may have recently recruited and have second choice candidates they have already interviewed and would recommend. Think about contacting agency staff you may have used in the past, because they might be available or, if not, know of someone who is. What about customers? Casually mentioning to your regular patrons that you’re looking for new staff will frequently pay dividends.

Advertise. There is a whole spectrum of options here. If keeping costs down is important, then social media is your priority. A simple post on your Facebook, Instagram or Twitter account will quickly get shared to a potentially huge audience, but it is vital you sell the benefits of working at your establishment, too. Your restaurant or pub website is another obvious choice, so a simple “We’re Hiring” banner on the front page will often bring results.

Going down the more formal route, an ad on a free or paid-for website is always worth considering, particularly if the role you’re recruiting has very specialist skills or candidates are in short supply. Think carefully about the best medium to use, however, as the more general recruitment publications and websites will probably bring you a great deal of well-meant but unsuitable candidates whose applications will have to be sifted. Wading through a hundred CVs will take time, so advertising in a specialist medium may cost more, but make appointing quicker and therefore cheaper in the long run.

CV Search sites. Sites like Indeed.com give you the freedom to browse candidates who have already posted their CVs, by selecting search specific criteria, key words etc. In our experience this approach works, but again it can be time consuming for the same reason as above.

Interviewing

The key here is structure and consistency. An interview doesn’t need to be formal, but be very clear with yourself about what you want to know about the potential applicants. Have your questions written down and ask the same questions to each candidate, recording their answers so you can compare notes later. This also gives you the ability to demonstrate that the process was fair, should anyone contest your ultimate decision. Interviewing theory has come a long way in recent years, so don’t run the interview for your head waiter as if you are recruiting a new Group Chairman. Arrange the experience to suit the context, including the physical arrangements. It could be that a walk around the premises while chatting and meeting the staff is the perfect way to get to know each other.

Consider using competency-based questions, rather than stock interview questions. For example, “tell me about a time when you did x, y or z” is so much better for finding out about a candidate’s true ability than “do you think you’d be good at this?”. Make good use of open and closed questions, too. If a candidate is nervous, you may have to tease answers out of them so don’t ask “can you work under pressure?” but rather hit them with “give me an example of when you have felt pressure but still performed really well”. The opposite technique is also helpful for those instances when a candidate can’t stop talking.

Above all, remember this is a two-way process and you are selling to your interviewees the dream of working in your restaurant or pub. Tell them why yours is a great place to work and spell out those benefits we mentioned earlier. Give them time to ask their own questions, either as you go along or at the end. Finally, make clear to the candidates what will happen next, when you will make your decision and how you will communicate it to them, and by when. And remember, your first choice candidate may turn you down so never, ever reject anyone directly on the day - you might just need that fall-back option.

Ask yourself some tough questions: do we really need to replace this role? Could it be combined with another? Made part or full time? Expanded into something bigger? Could we promote from within and back-fill? Much as we love our teams, it is the business which ultimately has to come first so be honest about your options. Simply adding more bodies doesn’t always solve the challenge you’re facing and it could be that your current structure and performance expectations, perhaps designed years ago, are not what you need right now.

Wrapping Up

Good, effective people are essential for any business to operate to its optimum. After all, deficiencies in staff attitudes and abilities will show through in your customers’ experiences within your pub or restaurant and the last thing you need are poor reviews on the usual web platforms. Do everything possible to retain your best staff by motivating, training and rewarding them, and don’t tolerate disruptors. You want your customers to have a great experience, and the staff too.

If you do need to recruit, word of mouth and social media outreach can be very effective, but just remember that adverts and your own interview technique will need to be compelling. Once you have found the right people, go back to the start and do everything in your power to retain them.


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