Special Report | May 2012 | By Barney Wolf

Where America Works

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Wendy’s, which this year became the second biggest burger chain behind McDonald’s, added only a net 18 units last year, yet it continues to look for new staff to fill the 20–30 slots at a typical restaurant. Units that serve breakfast employ more.

“We always want to get the most talented people,” says spokesman Denny Lynch.

The economic downturn had one small positive effect: It caused average restaurant turnover to fall precipitously. At one point several years ago, Wendy’s turnover occurred an average of about twice a year. Now it is about once a year.

“A higher unemployment rate definitely helps in job retention,” Lynch says. At the same time, Wendy’s is putting increased emphasis on hiring people with certain attributes, including having a friendly disposition and being able to focus on customers.

“What’s the deciding factor when someone goes to get a hamburger?” he asks. “When it comes to the tiebreaker, that can be customer service.”

Quick-service restaurants will always face some turnover because part-time, young employees, often students, tend to make up a fair-sized portion of their crew, augmenting the five to 10 people making up a restaurant’s core staff. But it’s a major investment to hire and train employees, especially as the industry has become more complex with technological advances and numerous new menu items.

Limited-service restaurants have been a foodservice leader in technology and improved productivity, and that shows up in job projections, says the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Kasper. Even though 400,000 jobs should be added by 2020 in that segment, managerial jobs will dip 85,000.

Restaurants added more than 550,000 jobs during the past two years, and limited-service operations chipped in about a quarter million of them.

“It appears these restaurants are putting more responsibility in the hands of other workers, even counter workers,” he explains. “The number of fast food and counter workers is expected to grow 16 percent” by the end of the decade.

Jamba Juice chose to have its own National Hiring Day in March at about 80 locations across the country. Its goal was to recruit and hire young people for summer employment. The undertaking supported the chain’s pledge to create 2,500 jobs as part of the Obama administration’s Summer Jobs+ program. That would increase employment across the Jamba Juice system an average of three people per store, or about 20 percent.

The day was a “resounding success,” says Kathy Wright, the company’s vice president of human resources. “We’re thrilled with the quality of candidates.”

Jamba Juice, like many other counter-service restaurants, adds employees to meet increased summer traffic. “We begin to see increased business in April and it really ramps up in June,” Wright explains.

The company made the commitment to add the young workers to help them get experience in the workforce. “We have the need, and there are people out there who need jobs. It makes perfect sense,” Wright says.

Thousands of people showed up for initial interviews and many were scheduled for follow-up conversations with the Emeryville, California–based beverage and food chain, which has about 775 units in the U.S. and three other countries.

“We are looking for someone who is comfortable talking to people,” Wright says. “There is significant customer interaction and many different tasks, so we want young people who are enthusiastic and committed to a family friendly environment and active lifestyle.”

Hiring days are good for focusing attention on the hunt for great employees, but just one in a hiring toolbox that includes placing want ads and using online applicant tracking systems, as well as posting to websites and social media.

The best, some experts say, may be through the circle of friends who work at or are customers of the restaurant.

“Referrals tend to bring better quality candidates,” says Brandon O’Dell, an independent restaurant consultant in Kansas City. “Now we’re seeing some social media catching up, like LinkedIn, which has been mostly for professionals but is growing in popularity among hourly [workers], too.”

Some young employees may be drawn to companies that have strong social ethics, such as buying local and using organic ingredients, O’Dell says.

While hiring is important, so is retaining good workers. Companies have created all kind of incentives, such as awards, bonuses and benefits to keep its best employees. One idea that has caught hold in full-service restaurants is profit sharing, something that O’Dell expects will eventually move to quick serves.

“It started with management and it will work down to hourly,” he says. “It’s a great motivator when you’re rewarded for your role in the success of the business. It gives workers a sense that what they do every day has real meaning.”