Recession brings unique hiring challenges

March 5, 2012
With high unemployment, the hiring challenge is wading through stacks of resumes or sometimes the lack of "just the right" candidate, but vending and coffee service providers are using varied solutions to hire the best.

There's no question the economy affected vending and coffee service operators, causing many to downsize staff. But whether from a shift in the services provided or more stable economy with less unemployment, many operators have started hiring again. And with the hiring process comes the challenge of finding good, qualified people, sifting through overwhelming applicants and determining proper compensation. Many successful operators rely on word of mouth, while others are using employment agencies. And knowing what is needed in an employee, besides basic requirements, is just as important as compensating them fairly.

Qualified employees still a challenge

Finding good quality candidates seems to be most challenging for small, family owned operations which need candidates who are multitalented and committed to the company, instead of just the paycheck. 

Mark Legler, owner of V.E.N. Enterprises, a small honor box and vending operation in rural Indiana, finds it staggering how few people in his area have a good driving record, good attendance record or who can be trusted with a lot of cash. "We can teach everything else, they need to know, but if they don't have these qualities, they are probably not the right person for what we want to do," said Legler.  Rather than put an ad in the paper or online and sift through applicants, Legler watches for people in the community who meet the requirements. He'll even hire good people part-time, so they can fill or service honor boxes around their other work or school schedules.

"The people we have now enjoy the relative freedom of working by themselves, traveling around the area, and interacting with people," said Legler.

He's noticed if the job doesn't fit an employee, the pay doesn't matter. He pays a straight hourly wage because he asks his employees to do many jobs from repairing/moving machines to selling new account.

Marni Frank, co-founder of Community Refreshments, Tampa, Fla., doesn't find high unemployment rates making good, qualified employees easier to come by even in densely populated Florida. "There are very few people with the mentality to grow with us," she said. Being a small, coffee service provider, the importance of employees being dedicated to the company is extremely important. 

For Frank, the skills that are more important now than they ever were, are the ability to upsell an account and be knowledge about service. She'd like a driver who can see a location buying cups from a savings club, for instance, and then communicate to them that Community Refreshments could handle that service.  

Frank pays drivers bonuses on top of their salaries for upselling an account, adding service or product, or finding a new account. Her sales force is split, some receiving a similar bonus package and some getting a commission from the account for maintaining the relationship, although this is often viewed as the route driver's job.

Hiring is the same, tools differ

Randy Parks, owner and founder of ProStar Services, Inc. in Carrollton, Texas, thinks the economy has led to better candidates and less turnover, but not to an extreme.

"It's a work-a-day industry," he said, "so it's sometimes  difficult to find folks with the right work ethic."  He posts jobs online, on Craig's List, or hires employees from a temp agency if he doesn't think the position will be permanent, such as for a software project.

"I used to use newspapers," said Parks, "but it seems folks we want to hire are all online."

ProStar Services has a pay scale based on Park's 25 years of experience in the business, friendly competition and the local job market.

Outside company's help

Bob Yeomans, owner of Central Vending in Janesville, Wis., outsourced his recent hires of a full and part time route driver, because it was easier and convenient.

"I think the pool of capable people is larger than it was," he said. "That's a good and bad thing."

Yeomans found when looking for an applicant on his own, he'd be flooded with resumes. "When you get thousands of applications to weed through, it's a challenge, if you're a small business owner," he said, "even 50 applications is a challenge."

Yeomans used the employment agency Manpower, in part because he didn't need the new drivers immediately. He gave Manpower his requirements and two months later he got candidates that met his exact needs. "I'm very happy with who they found," he said.

A mid-size, Chicago-area operator also outsourced hiring with the help of a Professional Employer Organization. According to the national PEO association, PEOs provides human resource services to small business clients — paying wages and taxes and assuming responsibility and liability for compliance with myriad state and federal laws and regulations.

"All our employees technically work for them," says Lee Hartnett, co-owner of Commercial Coffee Service/Food Systems Inc., Bridgeview, Ill. The company made the decision to use a POE four years ago after being hit with numerous 20 to 30 percent increases in health insurance costs. They're very happy with the switch.

"It controls costs on insurance, relives us of dealing with workman's compensation, and allows us access to an extensive HR department," explained Hartnett. "Employees can even call for counseling," he added, which is something Commercial Coffee Service/Food Systems Inc. wouldn't be able to offer on its own.

Even with the help of the PEO, Commercial Coffee Service/Food Systems Inc. still hires most often by word of mouth. Hartnett tried using Career Builder, the online job Website, and after two days he stopped printing the resumes because he had 2,200. He admitted, at that point, he just took an inch stack and hoped it included the best candidate.

Instead, the company relies more on existing employees for filling job openings, which has been very successful. Commercial Coffee Service/Food Systems Inc. offers bonuses to employees who recommend someone that is subsequently hired, and then pays a bonus every year the new hire is still with the company. "What you find is, people won't recommend someone for hire who will make them look bad," said Hartnett. "And they take the extra effort to help the new person with training or whatnot."

Hiring at a moment's notice

According to Tom Siciliano, COO, Integrity Associates LLC, most operators struggle to find the best employee for their organization, because their reactive instead of proactive. When someone quits or is terminated, there is rush to find a replacement, which leads to an abbreviated job hunt. To counter balance this, Siciliano suggests always keeping a desk drawer full of good potential employees. 

"You're always recruiting," he said about employers who hire the best. "You're always looking for talent." Siciliano wants operators to be aware of their competitions' best driver, and know when he/she quits. Operators should keep in contact with candidates that would make good employees, taking them out to lunch, occasionally, so the candidate knows the operator is still interested in hiring him/her, even if there's no immediate opening.

Another common hiring misstep, Siciliano sees, is operators that don't have a full, detailed job description when their hiring. It's about drilling beyond the basics of a good driving record, reasonable employment attendance, and even service experience, down to the intangibles.

"What we sometimes miss are: work ethic, team building, people skills, communication skills, and advancement potential," he said. "Like, will this individual be able to take it to the next level."

Tom Britten, president of Britten Management Services, LLC, has seen firsthand operators hire the wrong person simply because they didn't fully evaluate the job and candidate. He once talked to a Southern operator struggling to keep employees. The most recent hire just stopped coming to work. He was a computer programmer who took the job because he needed it, but didn't really understand what it would be like to spend 10 hours a day working a physically demanding job in a hot truck.

"A big mistake is not considering the rigors of the work compared to what the employee is used to," said Britten. This needs to be brought up in the interview. "If (they) don't like to carry three cases of soda up three flight of stairs, then this job isn't for (them)," he added.

In Britten's experience, hiring based on the recommendations of current employees is absolutely a good practice. The current employee understands the job and the requirements clearly. "It's always been a challenge to find a good fit," said Britten about hiring drivers.

The tough economy presents all sort of challenges, but hiring using existing employees as references or outside companies to assist with employment is helping operators find the best employees, and they pay to keep them, shown in the increase in the NAMA wage and benefits report on employee wages from 2009 to 2011. It's an essential component of the successful vending or OCS operation.