Hiring in a (Still) Tight Labor Market

With the slowing of the economy, many co-ops and other natural food stores are noticing a slight easing in the difficulty of recruiting and retaining workers. Despite economic downturns and upswings, however, there has been a structural change in the labor market which won't go away--at least not until 2010, according to forecasts by the Department of Labor. The fact is that not as many young people are entering the workforce, proportionate to the number of jobs available, as there used to be.

Retail business in general depends on young people working for relatively low wages in entry level jobs. Over time, a few stay on to move into more skilled jobs and fewer still stay on to become managers. This system worked well enough when there was a large supply of young people needing jobs. But it's not like that any more, and co-ops, like other retailers and service businesses, have had to find new ways to cope.

There are no magic formulas for recruiting. But this article will present a menu of strategies (most of them tested at one co-op or another) from which managers might select one or more to suit their co-op's situation. Many co-op managers tell me that while management positions have always been hard to fill, entry level positions are now the greater challenge. While some of the following suggestions would apply to all positions, the primary focus will be on finding qualified applicants for the front line.

Marketing a great place to work

A survey conducted by the Ford Foundation in 1997 asked college age people what they wanted in their work environment. They spoke of "accomplishing something worthwhile, celebrating community, learning new skills and expanding knowledge, feeling needed and able to make a real contribution." A youth panel at the 1998 Provender Alliance conference (a natural foods trade association in the Northwest) reviewed what attracted and kept young people in the natural foods industry:

  • attraction to natural foods: e.g., veganism, organics, anti-GMO's;
  • politics of food--making a difference, being part of a movement;
  • growth opportunities in knowledge and responsibility;
  • having a voice, being respected and listened to;
  • alternative to the domination of "the market";
  • "work that supports my lifestyle and reflects my values."

Co-ops can and often do offer all of these elements to employees. But do co-ops emphasize them when recruiting? If you have a great benefits package (co-ops tend to lead other retails in benefits offered) or flexible scheduling, certainly play them up. But don't forget to appeal to the deeper values that motivated the creation of the co-op in the first place.

Sometimes I encounter managers who feel apologetic about the jobs they have to offer, as if a cashier job, for example, is inherently distasteful. That attitude seeps through in interviews and the whole approach to recruiting. Yet I've conducted employee surveys at co-ops where cashiers told me again and again, "This is the best job I've ever had. This is the best boss I've ever had. The co-op is a great place to work." Maybe you can use quotes and pictures of your employees in your ads. And employees can participate more actively still in attracting good job candidates.

Recruiting strategies

Employee referral programs

Many businesses have some sort of bonus program for employees who refer a successful applicant. Compared to other forms of job advertising, this is one of the most cost-effective options available to employers. Research shows that employees referred by coworkers tend to stay on the job longer. If you don't already have such a program, consider starting one. Ask your employees through a survey or task force what they would like as rewards. How much cash would it take to induce someone to make the effort? (I've seen as little as $50 and as much as $500.) Are there non-cash rewards employees might like even more?

Some employers pay out the reward after successful completion of the trial period. Others pay out half upon hire and the other half after the trial period. Some pay different levels of bonus depending on the type of position to be filled. If you do have such a program in place, is it working for you? If you're not getting results, get some feedback on the reward you're offering, and publicize the program more among the staff. Experts recommend that you give out token awards such as small gift certificates to staff who refer people who at least get interviewed, even if they don't get hired.

Open houses

Another area where your staff can help recruit is in holding an open house for potential employees. This works best when you need to do a mass hiring for an expansion. For example, Outpost Natural Foods Co-op hired two thirds of their front-line staff for their second store through an open house in the new location a month before it opened its doors. First Outpost launched an intensive publicity campaign, using a big sign on the new store, flyers in the first store, ads in neighborhood and high school newspapers and a local employment web site, pamphlets distributed in senior centers and community colleges, a farmer's market and a job fair. Each department arranged to have its own table staffed by employees from that department. Several hundred people turned up on a Saturday to fill out applications, read about the co-op's benefits, talk to employees at the department tables and get interviewed by the managers in the departments of their choice. Since applicants got a lot of information up front, managers could focus on efficiently turning over interviews. No one was hired on the spot, but managers followed up with applicants who interested them and made job offers within the week. Thorough publicity and a well-organized process made this open house a success.

Printed materials

Application forms can be "merchandised" with brightly colored eye-catching tear-off sheets listing the advantages of working for the co-op, and with some kind of sleeve or holder that keeps the paper forms looking neat and tidy. In Ann Arbor, Zingerman's Deli features application forms prominently in holders in the seating area and by the register line. By letting people fill out forms any time, you can build up an applicant pool to contact.

Another innovation from Outpost is business cards for managers to hand out whenever they encounter great customer service from employees in another establishment. "Your work has impressed me!" reads the card, and it goes on to spell out the co-op's mission and gives a number to contact, concluding with the statement, "We offer great benefits in a fun and supportive workplace." Of course a card like this could tie in nicely with an employee referral program.

Internet recruiting

A few years ago a plethora of companies burst upon the Internet, hoping to become the electronic world-wide version of the daily classifieds. There were many predictions that print ads would soon be obsolete as people looked to electronic job boards instead. These predictions haven't panned out. The job boards got congested with out-of-date resumes, and employers placing ads that got read around the world, instead of solely in their metro area, felt that they had acquired an even bigger haystack in which to look for the proverbial needle.

Nowadays many newspapers run their classified print ads concurrently on-line, and employers' own web sites have become (at least potentially) powerful recruiting tools. At Puget Consumers Co-op, for example, you can link to a job openings page right from the home page, review job listings in each store, download an application form, and send it in electronically. Human resources managers who recruit with web sites advise, "Make your site interactive." Ask visitors what they are looking for in a job. Get their e-mail addresses, build up a file, then send out e-mail announcements when there's a job opening.

Direct mail

If you already use direct mail to advertise your store's products, consider it for advertising job openings. Flatbush Food Co-op in Brooklyn has used this approach. Direct mail can be locally targeted and reaches the already employed. It requires either building your own data base through customer and employee referrals and former applicants, or purchasing a data base (check the Yellow Pages for local companies.) The costs include developing the list, producing the flyer, postage and coupons or rewards offered, if any. Some employers offer a discount or free product for people who come to the store and fill out applications. Direct mail experts advise keeping the flyer content short, "headlines only." As one such expert says, "Forty per cent of your success is in your list, 40% is in your offer, and 20% is in what you say in your piece."


When Hanover Co-op opened its Lebanon store, they needed to fill 100 job openings. A print ad in the local paper yielded exactly two applicants! The human resources department turned to radio job ads, and got enough applicants to staff the new store. Radio job ads seem particularly well established in New England. I hear them whenever I drive there--from software companies, car dealerships, casinos, all kinds of companies. I even hear ads from radio stations to employers urging them to recruit by radio.

Like direct mail, radio can be locally targeted and it reaches the already employed. But it reaches a lot more of them. According to one study 65% of Americans listen to the radio at work, and of course many listen to the radio while commuting? Radio ads create a sense of urgency ("Call now!"). The keys to successful radio advertising are to give an easy-to-remember phone number, and don't ask for resumes, just ask listeners to call. Radio stations usually have departments that can help you produce the ad. You can have a popular deejay read the ad, or record your own employees pitching the job on the air.

Which of these strategies will work for your co-op? That depends on whether your store is large or small, urban, suburban or rural. But if you are having trouble finding applicants, try one of these. No reason to wait till 2010 for the labor market to get better!

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