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Fueling Future Foodservice Leaders' Fire

Each summer, collegiate foodservice departments all across the country scramble to hire enough student employees to staff the myriad positions set aside for them. Frequently, a large student staff can make the difference between a positive and a negative bottom line. Hiring enough student employees is the first step. Training, motivating, evaluating, involving, developing loyalty and promoting take a continuous cycle that correlates with the timing of each school year, that school foodservice professionals often have to repeat each semester or quarter.

While we may clearly see the bottom-line advantages of a strong student workforce, the benefits to the student applicant are not so obvious. We can easily teach culinary skills such as vegetable prep, baking, cooking, steaming milk properly for a cappuccino, and providing good customer service. Many student employees are happy at this level and don’t have a desire to move up the leadership ladder. However, once you isolate the leadership attributes of your top student employees, you are able to present job opportunities much more compelling than learning how to cook or serve customers. To attract a large student workforce, foodservice directors must offer the students opportunities that transcend minimum-wage job duties.

The larger the operation and the larger the student staff, the more important it is to have invested and emotionally connected student employees. Over the past 22 years, I’ve had the pleasure of supervising more than 4,000 part-time student employees. During that time, I realized that there must be a certain management culture in place that not only enables a largely student-staffed foodservice operation to succeed, but also celebrates its creativity, energy and challenges year after year. And despite the challenges, the rewards for those of us who embrace this model go well beyond any positive bottom line that is achieved.

Don’t Skimp on New Employee Orientation Students need to know what is expected of them. These expectations should be stated in precise terms, much like an outline of course requirements. Descriptions of tasks, hours of operation, proper dress, evaluation procedures, policies, payroll details and supervisory structure are all necessary items. New employee orientation is a perfect place to set the stage for the experience to come — if you want to connect the employees to the history of the operation, tell your story. If you want to connect employees to your food, provide food for the meeting. If you want to promote the leadership opportunities, have current student supervisors present this topic. Connecting new employees to your environment and to your history, philosophy and culture is as important as orienting them to their role as an employee in your foodservice facility.

Train, Train, Train One constant in employing students is that you will need to train continuously. Training part-time, inexperienced student employees can be an overwhelming job, even to the most experienced trainer. Creating a training team of student managers and supervisors is one way to disperse the training. “Training the trainers” is a system that has worked well at many establishments. One person often does not have the time to train all new employees, let alone handle the re-training that can be an integral component of any training program; spreading out the duties amongst your student leaders is an effective way of tackling this challenge. Equipment training should include opportunities for hands-on trials with the individual pieces, a chance to ask questions, and safety tips for use as well as for cleaning. Enhance training by using photos, descriptions and checklists.

Diligent Oversight Checklists can work well for student leaders. Make sure to ask for input when creating the checklists, update these lists regularly depending on feedback or need, and don’t forget to ensure they use the checklists. Don’t create useless checklists; a complete checklist can minimize mistakes and can succinctly communicate expectations.

Create a Student Leadership Ladder Consider your student supervisors and managers part of your leadership team. Count on student employees to take an active role in developing and improving your services. Employees prosper when their ideas and comments are appreciated and implemented. Get their perspective and buy-in before making big changes to your program. Reward good ideas publicly.

Create and Promote Advancement Opportunities If possible, create as many opportunities for your student employees to advance as possible. Job duties can include training, marketing, scheduling, human resources, supervising and management. These positions will have various levels of complexity and responsibility, but all should be part of your leadership team. Management meetings should always include student representation, such as your student managers who should always be considered part of your management team.

Make it Fun: Cultivate and Show Your Sense of Humor Most employees want to enjoy their jobs. When students work side-by-side, whether it’s chopping four gallons of yellow onions for clam chowder or scooping chocolate chip cookies onto a sheetpan, a sense of connectivity permeates throughout the kitchen. When a kitchen crew works hard to produce the daily menu, a sense of accomplishment adds to the connection. Mistakes will happen; having a demeanor that includes approachability, a sense of humor, warmth, flexibility and openness should be nurtured in order to be effective. Understand all you can about Gen Y — what motivates them, what are they reading, and listening to. Be open-minded; don’t let the generation gap get in the way. Allow employees to play their music and have fun in your operation.

Be Flexible Academics must come first. Remember that being a student is their primary job. This means being especially flexible during midterms and final examinations. Hard and fast rules are important to have, but there may be times when extra flexibility on your part will be greatly appreciated and help secure that emotional connection you seek in your employees.

Foodservice directors are in a unique situation where they can create the framework for developing the leaders of the future. From the operator’s point of view, overseeing a large inexperienced student workforce can be daunting. But it can be managed and it can be successful. Providing college foodservice supervisory positions creates opportunities for students to learn skills, develop their own leadership acumen, challenge themselves in new ways, and work in a supportive, encouraging and fun environment! And it gives them much, much more than just rent money.

The following is a sample taken from a graduate’s resume:2004-2006: Student Supervisor, Campus Dining Supervised activities for a $3.2M campus foodservice business serving 6,000+ customers per day. Managed up to 50 part-time employees on a daily basis; assigned jobs as needed; provided ongoing training; and was responsible for excellent customer service, cleaning schedules, equipment knowledge and safety procedures, safety documentation, employee productivity, production quantities, inventory management and food quality assurance. Participated in monthly meetings to resolve issues, and to create processes for continuous improvement.