By SARAH KOCHER, St. Cloud Times
ST. CLOUD, Minn. (AP) — At the Sauk Rapids Dairy Queen, the “Now Hiring” sign has been up since late February, when it opened for the season.
Hiring was “scary tough,” particularly in the beginning of the season, franchise co-owner Misty Hahn Schultz said.
She said hiring has never been so tough at the Sauk Rapids DQ over the 30 years she’s worked there. A lot of their employees are college students, Hahn Schultz said, but this year, applications were coming in almost exclusively from 14- and 15-year-olds whose working hours are more restricted by state law. That’s when she and co-owner Holly Lyon knew they’d have hiring trouble this season.
Similar help-wanted signs appear on doors and marquee signs across the St. Cloud area. It’s another expression of a workforce shortage that stretches back further than the pandemic, but has been felt particularly keenly as COVID-19 drags on.
Last summer, when the Department of Employment and Economic Development released its update about occupations in demand, it was in an effort to reflect the pandemic conditions that led to little demand for workers in the restaurant industry. After all, restaurants were closed or operating for takeout only, the St. Cloud Times reported.
“We were kind of prepped for, or thinking about, how are we going to transfer those folks that are in the restaurant industry into other sectors?” said Luke Greiner, DEED’s regional analyst for central and southwest Minnesota. ”… Now, those conversations seem almost crazy.”
To some extent, Greiner said, the restaurant industry is in the same boat as other employers in terms of difficulties finding people to hire. There’s not a lot of extra labor to go around, he said.
But on the other hand, “no other sector shed as many jobs and laid as many people off, so they have a lot more ground to try to make up than these other sectors,” Greiner said. “And I think that is why it is more acute an issue for the restaurant industry.”
The same can also be said of other aspects of the hospitality industry, Greiner added
Jules’ Bistro owner Donella Westphal said she’s been short of staff for the last 12 to 18 months. It was particularly frustrating this summer, she said, because the customer demand was present and presented an opportunity to gain back lost ground.
“I had to put boundaries around what we could offer because I didn’t have enough staff,” Westphal said.
She said the pandemic “interruption” gave workers time to think about and change their minds about what they wanted from their jobs.
“It’s a lot easier to just keep going to the same job than to consider or think of yourself in a different occupation, but this pandemic kind of forced people to make that consideration,” Greiner said.
Supply-chain struggles have also created some chaos, which in turn can create stress for Westphal and her staff.
“That’s happening on every level,” Westphal said. ”…It’s happening when 10 cases of greens don’t show up on the truck and now I have to run around town and find greens. There’s just some major stops and starts in every aspect of life right now. And that is mentally and emotionally exhausting for people.”
Westphal said she hasn’t expanded Jules’ hours because she doesn’t want to burn out the employees she’s retained.
It’s been the toughest to fill kitchen positions.
“I post a position for a cook and I’m lucky if I get any applicants at all,” she said.
So Westphal has shifted her strategy. She’s looking at staffing as a long-term effort. She kept in touch with one prospective employee for six months, Westphal said, before the staff member came to work at Jules’.
Westphal said she’s focusing on finding people with the same values Jules’ espouses and will hire them even if they may not have professional experience.
“I’m really approaching hiring differently,” she said.
She’s also focusing on increasing cross-training among staff. For instance, a dishwasher could also be trained to cook on the line. Westphal said it’s been exciting to see her staff identify needs and be willing to step up. She said the change in season, from lake season to fall, has helped as well.
Border Foods President Aaron Engler said the company is always hiring, but that the difficulty in finding employees now is “unusually high.”
He said although workforce participation has been shrinking in the U.S. for several years, the St. Cloud area poses an additional challenge as the community continues to grow.
“With a lot of growth brings a lot of competition for us,” Engler said. ”… The pool of employees is getting smaller, so when you combine that with the growth of St. Cloud and the growth of competition in St. Cloud, it makes the pool of possible employees smaller in your area.”
That’s why the St. Cloud area was included in the 21 Taco Bells (largely in Minnesota) operated by Border Foods that had a hiring push in an effort to fill more than 500 positions. In the St. Cloud area alone, Border Foods was looking to fill 75 positions.
Border Foods served free tacos at the recruiting events. It made new employees who applied during the event eligible for a $250 hiring bonus. The company held a raffle for two $1,000 college scholarships. And it reminded applicants of Border Foods their eligibility for tuition reimbursement if employed.
“What makes it easier for us to offer those benefits is scale,” Engler said, also referring to additional incentives for employees. “We have 223 restaurants in nine states, and with that scale, it allows us to offer benefits and other opportunities that you may not see everywhere.”
Engler said this is the first time Border Foods has done a large-scale hiring event like this.
“We’re doing everything that we can,” he said. “Anything that we can in benefits and perks and pay and hiring parties, all these things just combined.”
According to Engler, hiring incentives for quick-service restaurants are important because employers in the food industry compete largely on wages.
“Everyone is so close on wage,” Engler said. ”… So, it’s these ancillary benefits that we offer that I think really drives retention.”
Lyon said their difficulty staffing was eased somewhat starting in June when schools let out and college students returned to summer jobs. They’ll close the DQ for the season in October, but are working to hire for next season. Lyon said they’re hopeful next year will be back to normal.
“We can’t stay afloat without our staff,” Hahn Schultz said.
It was particularly tough in March, when the business had to shave six hours off its daily time open because so many staff members were in quarantine.
When a Taco Bell doesn’t have enough staff, Border Foods may temporarily close that location’s lobby, Engler said.
“That’s not good for us,” he said. “It’s not good for the public that wants to eat our food.”
The worst-case scenario for the company is to reduce a store’s hours, or close it temporarily, if they can’t get enough staff.
One way they can adapt is to have employees who want more hours work at more than one Taco Bell location, Engler said.
He confirmed the company is seeing a staffing shortage in St. Cloud, but as of late August did not have plans to close lobbies or shorten hours in the area.
Both Westphal and Engler said they see light at the end of the tunnel — whenever that may come.
“I don’t believe this is a forever,” Engler said of the hiring difficulty. “I think this is a circumstantial (thing).”
Westphal said she’s hopeful but realistic about the future, but also that she feels more adaptable and easy-going with a staff better equipped to respond to what comes.
“I have learned that I’m going to get hit with a new challenge every single day, but that I have built a team here, and that together we can figure out how to respond to it,” she said. “And it isn’t always going to be perfect … but our values and our mission are at the forefront in those moments, and creating really great guest experience, and giving people a little bit of respite from life is what we do.”
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