“The talent pool for regional staff has always been so thin, so the best case has always been to upskill your current staff,” says Ash Cooke, senior consultant, Future Food. Credit: Viacheslav Iakobchuk

Headlines herald a regional boom, but how can you effectively recruit for out-of-town restaurants? By Meg Crawford 

Attracting and retaining staff in regional Australia has always been tricky, and in a post-pandemic world the strain is even greater. In particular, labour plans that have traditionally relied on an extensive international workforce are all but redundant. With these challenges in mind, industry experts share their tips for attracting staff to restaurants beyond the metro-region ring.

Keep an open mind 

With a dwindling pool of experienced candidates, the first issue is sourcing staff. “My biggest ‘do’ in this regard is to consider everybody,” says Felicity Muller, general manager of the Portsea Hotel on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula. 

“We’ve found that some of our most successful people have joined us as fairly green, unskilled waitstaff who couldn’t carry three plates, but they’ve gone on to develop into fantastic supervisors. Also, a lot of people on the Mornington Peninsula right now have decided to give something else a go, basically through necessity. 

“So, we’re exploring everybody. We focus more on willingness and attitude towards work, rather than a specific hospitality skill set. A skill set is quite easily taught in hospitality, whereas attitude and willingness are the things we covet in staff.”  

The accommodation question

Regional relocation never looked so attractive as when lockdown was in full swing in Melbourne and looming elsewhere. Of course, the influx of new residents meant that rental prices skyrocketed, with a negative knock-on effect. 

“Recently, we were working on three roles in the Hunter Valley—we placed one candidate, but he was unable to secure permanent accommodation for the first three months,” says Nick Miney, Hospoworld’s team leader – Victoria & NSW. “As for the other roles, those candidates were unable to get any type of accommodation, through no fault of their own. That’s how tight it is at the moment.”

Of course, if a venue can offer accommodation, it’s an immediate drawcard. “One of the added benefits for us is that we’re able to offer staff accommodation,” says Muller. “We do have that space here at the hotel and it’s been part of our labor-planning model and preparation for peak periods over time, so that has given us a small advantage in regard to recruitment.”

However, it’s not always going to be possible for an employer to arrange accommodation, which is where other incentives might assist. “There’s an Australian venue company tackling the issue by offering sign-on bonuses of up to $1000 to attract skilled and non-experienced people to join the industry,” says Francis Loughran, Future Food’s managing director. “Obviously, staff need to stay for a period of time, but that might be enough to assist someone with a rental deposit or help them with their accommodation, at least for starters.”

Focus on your existing staff

The imperative to hold on to good staff is greater than ever. It goes without saying that it’s critical to pay lawfully as per award, and if you can pay more all the better. However, the industry’s hard hit right now, so above-award salaries may not be feasible. In that case, opportunities for career progression and development become a selling point. 

“The talent pool for regional staff has always been so thin, so the best case has always been to upskill your current staff,” says Ash Cooke, one of Future Food’s senior consultants. “It shows commitment to your staff.” 

The fact that businesses may need to bring in unskilled or inexperienced staff might also provide career development for existing employees. “If you have great talent already within your business, maybe this could be another marker for retention,” observes Miney. “Is somebody an amazing trainer or coordinator, but not officially had that title within the business? Have them operational for three days, but onboarding inexperienced staff the other two.”  

Put your best foot forward

It’s a candidate’s market right now, so the advice is to elevate your profile. “One way to go about this is to work closely with local TAFEs and promote your establishment as an employer of choice for new-to-the-industry students,” explains Cooke. 

“It could be through offering apprenticeships or on-the-job training opportunities to help students fast-track their studies, as opposed to just signing them up.” 

Another suggestion is to craft the recruitment experience so as to cast yourself in the best possible light, advises Miney.

“One fascinating thing that we found during COVID is that people are making decisions based on their candidate experience, rather than a package. I had one restaurant manager accept the lowest paid of three offers. The company culture, the interview experience, what they were able to pitch from a professional development perspective, how people presented and the fact that the employer was selling the brand factored in. Off the back of COVID, candidates are telling us that money isn’t everything.”

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