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Attracting and Retaining Labour in a Post-Covid Landscape

As we begin to emerge from pandemic restrictions, it’s slowly becoming clear that traditional hiring and retention methods are no longer effective. Restaurants, in particular, are reporting a severe labour shortage, with difficulties attracting qualified applicants. The hospitality industry lost close to 300,000 jobs due to the effects of COVID-19 shutdowns. As a result, many restaurant employees have chosen to leave the industry altogether. CERB is the oft-cited reason for the labour shortage, but low wages, the instability of shift work and a lack of job security made it difficult for workers to stay in the sector during a crisis.

And yet, there are so many wonderful reasons to find work in the industry. It serves as an entry point into the workforce for students and young adults, providing a source of income and transferable skills for future goals. In restaurants, the staff are often tightly knit and enjoy a sense of camaraderie that goes unmatched in other fields. Those who choose hospitality as a long-term career enjoy fast-paced, hands-on work that is highly social with lots of variety—no two days are the same. And opportunities in hospitality extend past simply foodservice—there are numerous options to explore within the industry, from marketing and sales to manufacturing and travel.

However, the current challenge remains: attracting good talent to the field. Higher starting wages are becoming more common amongst restaurants trying to staff up ahead of pent-up demand as restrictions lift. But that’s only part of the equation. To address this dilemma and find solutions to these pressing issues, Restaurants Canada has engaged with experts and thought leaders in the field to get their take on the situation. After speaking with restaurant operators, field consultants and educators in the hospitality space, some underlying themes and actionable insights have emerged for consideration.

The Brand

As a restaurant owner, MICHEL FALCON knows first-hand the challenges in finding and hiring the right people. So when hiring for Brasa Peruvian, a fast-casual concept that launched mid-summer 2021 in Toronto, Falcon chose to do things differently. Instead of casting the net wide with a generic job spec, Falcon crafted a staffing process that would screen for the type of employees he was looking for, selling prospective workers on a collaborative work environment, one with opportunities for employees to realize their potential. New hires enjoy a higher than average starting pay with no probationary period, regularly scheduled days off and access to benefits from day one.

Falcon has also built a pipeline of coaches and subject matter experts for his team to tap into, whether to improve their public speaking skills, achieve personal fitness goals or help tutor their children. He’s hired those with aspirations to open their own foodservice businesses, with the aim of mentoring them to take that next step. A culture of trust and active plans for knowledge-sharing and cross-training prevents the loss of any single employee from having an outsized impact on operations.

The Educator

MICHELLE CAINE, the Chair of Hospitality Management at Centennial College, echoes some of these sentiments. “Flexibility is key in attracting a new generation of foodservice workers,” says Caine. For those used to a more traditional style of management, this may require a mindset change. New and younger workers in the field are dedicated, but also value work-life balance, the flexibility to accommodate other commitments and the ethics of the brand they’re working for. While pay is always a consideration, it’s not the only factor new entrants into the sector will consider.

As part of a longer-term recruitment strategy, Caine suggests making contacts at local schools, particularly those with a culinary department, to learn more about their programs and connect with graduating students. Faculty members can also offer insight into the hiring process or introduce students they feel might be a good fit.These connections may take time to build but can provide a steady pipeline of qualified applicants for future job openings. Caine also suggests a more collaborative interview process, one that allows the job seeker an opportunity to see the workplace in action, talk to current employees and ask informed questions about the role.

The Consultant

JOE BAKER, a strategy advisor with the Ontario Tourism Education Corporation, has been working to support the recovery and growth of the tourism and hospitality industries through the COVID-19 crisis. Because the industry is full of driven and talented people, Baker believes that a culture change is needed—one where hospitality staffers can thrive, with opportunities to develop their skills and parlay them into a fulfilling long-term career. “Restaurant industry workers should be able to expect a living wage, access to benefits, and career planning support,” says Baker.

Like Caine, Baker sees the importance of making relationships at schools and recruiting young talent. Programs that offer work-integrated learning, like co-ops, internships and practicums, are valuable for restaurants looking to develop new talent. Restaurant operators can utilize funding initiatives that provide a wage subsidy for students looking for experiential learning, linking their education with gainful employment.

Baker also notes that the workplace is a multigenerational one in many foodservice settings, potentially breeding misunderstanding and communication issues between age groups. “Sometimes, in a busy restaurant environment, it’s hard to stop and listen to what employees are saying. But it only takes a moment to pause and engage in active listening. Then, when employees feel like they are seen and heard, they feel understood.”

Ultimately, Baker believes the industry needs to make more opportunities that align with the values of those looking for work within the field, rather than the stop-gap, precarious work that hospitality is sometimes known for.

The Recruiter

JENNIFER MÉNARD-SHAND, Founder & CEO of Staff Shop Inc., an Indigenous-Women owned staffing firm, has been keeping a close eye on the changes in the industry throughout the pandemic. “You need to take it one day at a time vs. trail blaze amongst moving targets and uncertainty,” says Ménard-Shand. “It’s important to be sure to get an unbiased education on Canadian politics, EDI training, and consult with experts to ensure all in your organization from frontline workers to management work together respectfully, safely, and without discrimination.”

One of the tools Ménard-Shand recommends is to employ an anonymous survey regularly to keep a pulse on the way your team is feeling. In addition, consider facilitating “skip-level meetings” where employees can meet with the supervisor of their supervisor—giving them a safe space to share their experience, offer suggestions and bring forward concerns. Most importantly, as an owner/operator, action their concerns. It helps to paint a clear picture for an employee’s future in or out of the organization vs. shackling them to a short-sighted-materialistic vision like a salary and job title, which can lead to unfulfillment and turnover.

Overall, given the current labour climate, it is incredibly important for operators to focus on actively becoming a diverse and inclusive workplace. For one, your talent pool is critical.

And, when you’re recognizing everyone’s assets and giving everyone an opportunity to shine, you are cultivating a productive working environment. Having a diverse team is good for morale and helps to foster a culture of trust and acceptance. Prospective talent will assess your organization when considering coming to work for you. Is it an environment where they can feel comfortable? Does it mimic the other environments they are comfortable in—their neighbourhood, social circles, or values? Ménard-Shand says; “If the answer is no, you may be losing out on amazing talent simply because you’ve failed to cultivate an environment where they can grow and effectively picture themselves fitting in.”

The Maverick

While service roles are top of mind when considering the hospitality industry, the truth is, many opportunities exist outside of the restaurant. JEFF MCMULLEN, VP of Sales at Garland Canada, a foodservice equipment distributor, has held many roles in the industry. He started off as a restaurant dishwasher in his teens and later moved into sales and marketing, retail food production and capital purchasing, just to name a few.

For anyone with extensive kitchen experience looking for a career change, McMullen suggests looking within the industry first. “My culinary background has given me a definite edge in the other roles I’ve taken,” he says. For one, restaurant work is known for building soft skills, helping hone the teamwork and communication abilities needed to succeed in a variety of positions. But there are more specific advantages as well. Citing his experience with sales as an example, he adds, “Someone with working experience in a restaurant setting has a deeper understanding of the challenges and pain points that come with the territory. You’re able to connect with them on the same level and make better recommendations based on their needs.” Hospitality careers exist in healthcare, distributing, retail manufacturing, and travel, and that’s just scratching the surface. Based on current trends, McMullen also projects ample opportunities in foodservice technology in the future.

Even before COVID-19, there were an estimated 60,000 unfilled positions in the restaurant sector, an industry that represents Canada’s fourth-largest source of private employment. And it’s facing a significant shift. Workers are looking for employment opportunities that offer stability, fulfillment and room to grow. As the effects of the pandemic hopefully continue to subside, those in leadership positions in the field have a responsibility to rethink what rich, rewarding careers can look like and create opportunities accordingly. The health and future of the industry depend on it.

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