Top 10 Ways to Find, Recruit, and Retain Seasonal Employees

For most North American foodservice operators, the summer season means it’s Prime Time, rock n’ roll, busy season, and pedal-to-the-metal operations. Warmer weather traditionally brings out the diner in America’s consumer and this means more traffic, transactions and revenue. Successful seasonal execution is dependent on having a successful seasonal staff, so let’s discuss the basics of recruiting, hiring, training and retaining a high-performing summer workforce.

Somebody who knows a lot about successful seasonal hiring in our industry is Patrick Yearout, Director of Recruiting and Training for Seattle-based Ivar’s Restaurants. Ivar’s owns 59 restaurants in Washington state, comprising a mix of full-service seafood, quick-service seafood, and quick-service hamburger operations. They hire approximately 250 seasonals each summer. In researching the topic and interviewing Patrick for this column, I’ve compiled a list of ten best practices that can help you maximize your company’s seasonal recruiting efforts.

Start early. Smart operators begin the search for summer seasonal help in January. The longer you wait, the more likely it is that the best people have already snagged a summer job somewhere else.

Set recruiting milestones. Review all relevant data from last year’s recruiting effort and refine them. “Track your sales trends to estimate the seasonal business,” says Ivar’s Yearout. “Talk to your current staff about their vacation or time-off needs, determine the number of people you will need to hire, and set date-specific benchmarks for your hiring goals, liek the specific number of people needed by Mother’s Day, Memorial Day, Father’s Day, etc.”

Be picky if you can. The 2009 summer job market for students is likely to be a competitive one, with employers having the economy on their side. In 2008, 32.6 percent of teens ages 16-19 were employed, according to the US Department of Labor. That was a 60-year low and was down from a high of 45.2 percent in 2000. This year students will also see heightened job competition from seniors and laid-off older workers. “American teen unemployment hit 21.6 percent in February, a 17-year high, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics,” says the Charleston Post and Courier. “That was 5.5 percentage points higher than at the same time last year and nearly twice as high as the national unemployment rate as a whole.”

Market the openings don’t just “post” them. Get job postings listed at local high school and college job boards, job fairs, senior centers and Craigslist. Promote summer jobs to your customers (or their family members or friends) in your restaurant, e-newsletter or packaging materials. Get the word out to your vendors, delivery people, postal employees, and UPS drivers. And don’t overlook the most obvious potential referral source of all: your current employees. Accentuate the positive. “Highlight the advantages of working for your company or at that particular restaurant and define what makes you stand out as the employer of choice,” says Yearout. “It could be the location, the perks, the working conditions, the co-workers or even the customers. The key is to stand out, not blend in, so that prospective applicants choose to apply at your establishment over other places.”

Don’t shortcut the hiring process. Follow all applicable Federal and state hiring regulations and restrictions for seasonal employees, especially related to hours worked and equipment handled. Don’t rush the screening and hiring process if it means compromising your standards, values or culture. “Hiring people without the necessary skills and qualifications to be successful in your business will only hurt you when you’re forced to recruit, hire, and train other employees later in the season because the under-qualified ones didn’t work out,” says Yearout. “If you aren’t getting quality applicants, then refine or expand your recruiting efforts or borrow employees from other locations until you do find them.” There is no right way to develop the wrong person.

Contact them quickly. Your applicants are probably applying to several employers for their summer job. Once you’ve chosen an applicant, tender the job offer quickly and encourage a rapid response so you can snag them before the competition does. Yearout: “I recommend that managers emphasize the benefits of getting a summer job lined up early so that students don’t have to worry about employment and can concentrate on finals at school.”

No train, no gain. Don’t let seasonal workers “practice” on your customers because you hurried orientation or development. “Seasonal employees should be offered the same level of orientation and training that the regular staff is afforded,” says Mr. Yearout. “Make sure to stagger your hires, properly schedule your trainers, and order enough training materials ahead of time so that everyone is ready and able to do their jobs properly. If your operation does not have enough sales to prepare trainees for the volume prior to the start of the busy season, consider training them at another location that tends to be busy all year-round so they can get a better sense of what their jobs will be like when the busy season does begin.” Thorough orientation separates high-performers from low; and it’s better to find out during training that someone is unqualified. Finally, invest as much time in your company’s culture, mission, and values training as you do to for your skills training.

Flexibility is key. If you target high-school or college students for your summer positions, you may need to accommodate their desire for a summer job with the reality that it’s their vacation time too. This means being flexible with your—and their—schedule whenever possible.

Stay in touch and re-recruit during every shift. The best way to find good summer help next year is to retain the good seasonal help you had this year. Consider re-allocating some of your seasonal recruiting budget into incentives for returning workers. Stay in touch with high-performers throughout the year via e-mail, postcards or social media sites. Ivar’s recommends sending personal notes, birthday cards, the company newsletter, signing them up for your company’s Facebook page, tweeting them with company updates, and inviting them to company holiday parties. Make them feel part of the team. But the most impactful retention tool of all may be how well the seasonal team member is respected and treated during their stay. Yearout agrees: “The manager can’t let the stress of busy days affect their attitude and treatment of employees. They must bring positive energy and appreciation to the restaurant every day and create a fun, team-oriented, and involved workplace. If the staff looks back fondly on their summer job, then it will be no problem getting them to come back next year.”

Cast a wider net. The restaurant industry is hardly unique in terms of needing or hiring seasonal employees to handle a traditionally busy peak period. Consider the ski industry, cruise lines, landscaping companies, amusement parks, and even your local shopping mall; Toys R Us alone hired 35,000 seasonal workers in November 2008. Search the web for best practices from these seasonal recruiting veterans and adapt the best ideas to your company. If you’re still finding it difficult to recruit locally, hiring foreign workers or international college students may be an option. Do a Google search for third party companies that can help you find skilled international workers help. Many hospitality companies use these firms with great success.

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