Special Report | July 2011 | By Robert Lillegard

The Recruitment Revolution

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“Employees respect everybody because they know that everybody’s done all these things,” Cronky says. “Our managers also work the front counters by themselves. Regional managers—all of them were once store managers.”

According to David Kincheloe, president of National Restaurant Consultants, this kind of respect is key to keeping talented younger workers around. While money is the main reason young people take jobs, responsibility may be the reason they keep them, Kincheloe says.

“You’ve got to provide young people opportunities, to give them responsibility,” Kincheloe says. “Give them the tools to do their job and encouragement more than anything.”

He singles out Starbucks as one brand that’s been able to find quality workers and keep a positive image. In addition to the obvious perks (health insurance, flexible work hours, upward mobility), it created a mystique that can be attractive to quality young employees.

“People would rather go to work there,” Kincheloe says. “It doesn’t have quite the stigma. You’re not considered a fry guy—you’re a ‘barista.’ You’re not a coffee maker—you’re a ‘barista.’”

But there are other approaches to gaining young workers. What Starbucks accomplishes with its laid-back atmosphere, Dickey’s Barbecue Pit accomplishes with sheer energy. This 147-unit Dallas-based chain is growing explosively, and Dickey expects 200 stores by the end of the year. It’s precisely that frenetic pace that makes it so appealing to young talent.

“All the growth and the energy is behind fast-casual and counter-service restaurants,” Dickey says. “That is where the growth is—that’s the future of the restaurant industry.”

Dickey says the company does several things that make it attractive to young workers. To cut turnover, the company pays $2 to $2.50 an hour above minimum wage for most workers, and the average wage in their stores is $11 an hour. Their stores close at 9 p.m., which gives young workers time to enjoy the nightlife. Most importantly, however, the company offers a clear path upwards.

“We have the luxury of being able to take people on a merit basis and promote them very quickly,” Dickey says. “We have very publicized, well-known, quantifiable goals. We pay well, we coach well, we’re big believers in a lot of training.”

When that training happens alongside a normal curriculum, so much the better. That’s the attitude of Moe’s Southwest Grill. It’s got several recruitment strategies, including financial incentives for referrals and periodic checks of LinkedIn profiles. But to reach out to young employees who aren’t already connected to the industry, Moe’s has partnered with local universities. The company’s executives give guest lectures, host students at their offices, and share case study materials with professors in the hopes of finding talent.

“There relationships have helped us get our employment opportunities in front of some of the best college students out there,” Moe’s President Paul Damico says. “Retaining employees is all about investing in them personally.”

“Five years, ten years from now they’re going to be leading these companies.”

That personal investment is happening across the entire industry to various degrees. But one of the example doesn’t even come from an individual brand. Megan Meyer is the marketing and communications senior manager for the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation (NRAEF), the organization behind a two-year, nationwide program for high school students interested in the restaurant industry. The program, called ProStart, provides a blend of classroom learning and real-world work experience. Currently, 90,000 students are enrolled, and many of those are working in quick-service restaurants.

“Going into the schools is a huge boon,” Meyer says. “Getting into a classroom and talking about what it’s like to be a franchisee, it’s really when they make that one-on-one connection.”

As part of the ProStart program, Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen brought some students to an international franchisee conference in Orlando. Meyer says the event opened their eyes to the possibility of quick service as a career.

“They see the franchisee making a lot of money and realize that could be them, too,” Meyer says. “They could be on the stage earning an award for having the highest-sales franchise.”

The recession has brought more young people to the quick-serve industry, but it’s clearly not the only driver. From the efforts individual brands are making to improve their images to programs like ProStart, there are people working hard to make sure young people continue to be interested in the field. And while those efforts are already paying off in terms of a more engaged workforce, Meyer says the best is yet to come.

“You’ve got 90,000 students excited about something,” Meyer says. “Five years, ten years from now they’re going to be leading these companies. These students are kind of the future of the industry.”

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