Bakers Journal

A Recipe for Finding and Keeping Employees: Nine ways that small employers can act like they’re big.

April 2, 2008
By Ted Topping

Early in 2008, the unemployment rate in Canada was the lowest it had been in 33 years.

Early in 2008, the unemployment rate in Canada was the lowest it had been in 33 years. There were regional differences – resources and oil continued to drive the west while a strong dollar hurt manufacturers in central Canada – but employers across the country were scrambling to find and keep employees.

This is because low unemployment explains only part of the staffing challenge facing employers. The rest comes from the relatively small number of people who were born in Canada between 13 and 33 years ago as part of the country’s Baby Boom Echo.

Thirty years ago, when the Baby Boomers were young, it made sense to build a staff around “entry-level” workers (people approximately 22 years of age). But those days are gone and they will never return. No amount of immigration can offset our lack of young people, so employers simply must find new ways to staff their businesses.

Make sure you’re hiring the right person for the job. People working in production need different knowledge, skills and experience (both on the job and in life) than those of people working in retail.

Some of the country’s bigger employers are coping with today’s changing labour market more effectively than smaller employers. In part, this is because they employ specialists to come up with innovative staffing ideas – and then allocate the resources needed to implement those ideas.

Using our experience as retail consultants, we recently spent several days studying the current “best practices” in terms of finding and keeping employees. We then translated these into tips that should be practical and useful, if perhaps a bit unconventional, for smaller employers.

Not all of the following ideas will be useful for every employer in the baking industry, but there will likely be two or three recipes that are worth following.

Mentally separate production and retail. Companies in the baking industry typically create much of what they sell, making it all too easy for an owner or manager to favour one aspect of the business over the other. This could be based on background or personal experience, or simply because that person finds one part of the business to be more “fun.” In the context of finding and keeping productive employees, however, the two sides of the business are equally important – and very, very different. People working in production need different knowledge, skills and experience (both on the job and in life) than people working in retail. Bigger employers try hard to understand these differences so that they can get the right people in the right positions.

Systemize so you can step away. When a business owner wants to franchise his or her concept, one of the first steps is to systemize all aspects of the business so that others can first understand and then replicate it. Many small employers view developing a “system” as a waste of time, but bigger employers see it as a way that managers can guide and instruct people without actually being there. Thirty years ago, we would have been describing a system of policies and procedures presented nicely in a three-inch binder. In contrast, the system that makes sense today comprises a series of single-sheet checklists that can be explained to and quickly followed by new employees to help them get up to speed and perform efficiently.

Build your team around the Bust. Most employers who try to mix people born during Canada’s Baby Boom (1946 to 1965 according to StatsCan) with people born during the Baby Boom Echo (1975 to 1995) eventually wonder if mixing oil and water wouldn’t be easier. We could devote an entire issue of Bakers Journal to the reasons these two demographic cohorts do not mix, but basically it comes down to parents being different from their children. As bigger employers get tired of refereeing, some are deciding that people born during the Baby Bust (1966 to 1974) make productive, stable employees. Typically offering a solid education and some practical experience, they also have enough life experience to understand their importance to the business and its customers.

Revisit your incentive program. In some workplaces, employees get annual raises essentially for lasting another year. Average employees like this system because they can keep up with inflation just by putting in time. But it works directly against the need of retail bakeries to increase efficiency each year, producing more from less just to stay in business. That’s why bigger employers create incentive programs based largely on productivity. Anyone in human resources will confirm that the things you reward will be the things employees do. Targets for production might involve the efficient use of ingredients, while targets for retail might involve items per trans-action. They should be observable and measurable to prevent any disagreements, and they should be high but achievable so that everyone can “win.”

Establish standards before you hire. When facing a shortage of staff, owners and managers may be tempted to lower their standards and hire the first breathing candidate who walks through the door. Bad move, since this can lead to the business producing lower-quality products and offering vending-machine service (visit any of Canada’s department stores or franchised restaurants for proof). Instead of lowering standards, now is the time to raise them. This may “cost” the business in terms of higher wages, but bigger employers know that long-term customer satisfaction is more important. Your new hires must agree on: starting and finishing times, unscheduled overtime, vacations and sick days, use of cell phones and iPods, personal use of business computers and access to social-networking sites such as Facebook.

Try hiring half a person. People in their early 20s, the baking industry’s traditional entry-level workers, will represent a smaller and smaller percentage of Canada’s total population for at least the next 15 years. Which means that any staffing strategy built around them is pretty much doomed to failure. This is creating a huge demand for people in their mid-30s or older (in some cases, for people in their mid-50s or older – something unheard of not long ago). In addition to demanding and deserving higher wages, people at these life stages have different interests and priorities than entry-level workers. And some bigger employers are finding it more efficient to hire two or three “older and wiser” employees part time than one rookie full time.

Work at becoming more flexible. Any Canadian born in the mid-1970s or later has grown up with personal computers, electronic games and various other gadgets. This has resulted in a nation of young people living in a highly networked “blog” world in which their thoughts count and are worth sharing. This, in turn, has resulted in major conflicts with older employers, mostly over priorities and values. These are the fundamentals that each side believes in, and a powerful force in an employee’s decision to embrace a job or leave. Bigger employers are learning to focus on the take-off and landing issues, the 20 per cent of workplace activities that produce 80 per cent of the bottom line. Exactly how jobs get done becomes less important, within safe practices.

Feed and educate your people. No amount of theoretical training can match an employee’s personal experience when it comes to the products you produce and sell. Thirty years ago, much of the baking industry was “mass” and “bland” in the North American way, but this has changed profoundly. Most companies now produce specialty products for niche customers and sell broader services such as catering. Unfortunately, employees who have not been specially trained often don’t have the knowledge and experience they need to move much beyond written recipes or basic clerking. Bigger employers have found that the solution is to feed them, either at a reduced price or at no charge. Rather than a “free lunch,” this is a structured program through which employees learn about products.

Be a coach instead of a boss. Thirty years ago, the owner or manager of a retail bakery needed to be a boss. In the same way as a teacher, he or she knew the “right” answers and spent the day telling people what to do and how to do it. Responsibility rested at the top, which turned out to be too far from the customers who ultimately paid the bills. That’s why there isn’t much enthusiasm for “bossing” today, especially among bigger employers that want to build long-term relationships with customers.

Instead, these companies try to free employees to be as good as they can be – to manage, not micromanage. The most common coaching message an employee hears is, “Good job. I liked the way you…”

Ted Topping is president of Creative Insights Inc., Vancouver. He was keynote speaker at Bakery Showcase 2006 and has recently updated his book, “Start and Run a Retail Business,” for a second edition. Learn more at .

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