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Reducing turnover

Tap into an often overlooked source of dedicated workers


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Wendy Webb

Is your entry-level staff everything you hoped for? Do they come to work on time, brimming with motivation and enthusiasm? Do they put in a great day’s work? No? You’re not alone.

Finding dedicated entry-level employees is difficult and keeping them is even harder. Turnover of hourly workers hovers at 107 percent this year, up from 101 percent last year, according to People Report, a Dallas-based research-and-consulting firm that tracks human resource information for the foodservice industry. Why is it so difficult to attract and keep great entry-level workers? Much of it stems from the positions themselves. Let’s face it, these aren’t exactly glamour jobs. They can be routine and repetitive.

Tom Swanston has a solution. He’s the executive director of Chesapeake Service Systems (CSS), a non-profit organization based in Chesapeake, Va., that specializes in finding employees for those hard-to-staff entry-level positions. His success rate is impressive—he can rattle off a list of workers who have been at their jobs for six years, even a decade. That’s so far from the industry average for retention it isn’t even fair to make the comparison.

What’s Swanston’s secret? The workers he places in those positions are mentally challenged. Some local franchises that have hired workers through CSS include Fazoli’s, CiCi’s Pizza Buffet, and Ruby Tuesday.

As many as 8 million Americans have some form of intellectual disability, according to the President’s Committee for People with Intellectual Disabilities in Washington, D.C. Improvements in education, training and rehabilitation have resulted in a generation of young adults with intellectual disabilities who are well prepared for the workplace and eager to enter it. Still, nine out of 10 are unemployed.

Where’s the disconnect? Why aren’t more employers tapping this rich labor pool?

Swanston cites a number of factors. While most states have organizations like CSS, many employers simply don’t know about them. To staff those positions, employers place ads in newspapers or hang signs in their windows instead of turning to an agency like CSS. Employers are also worried about accidents, increased training expenses and the social problems that might arise from hiring mentally challenged workers. Other employees might not have experience relating to mentally challenged people, making the work environment uncomfortable. In short, there is more effort involved in hiring someone with a mental disability—and many employers don’t think they have the time.

That’s a mistake, says Swanston. He says the benefits of hiring mentally challenged workers far outweigh any obstacles. And by “benefits,” he’s not referring to warmfuzzy feelings managers get for doing the right thing. He’s talking about bottom-line numbers.

“What our clients may lack in mental ability they make up for in motivation,” explains Swanston. “They’re so excited and grateful to have these jobs. That translates into high attendance rates, dependability, loyalty and enthusiasm.”

And turnover? “These workers stay on the job for years and years,” Swanston says.

While it might take longer to train a mentally challenged worker, that time and expense will come back tenfold in the form of the cost savings resulting from reducing the high turnover for those positions.

And the increased training and socialization needs? The employer doesn’t have to handle those alone. A “job coach,” from an agency like CSS accompanies the worker to his or her new job site to act as a liaison, a trainer and a buffer to make sure the new job starts on the right foot.

“Our folks tend to take longer to learn job duties than other employees do,” says Swanston. “The job coaches are there to make sure the employer doesn’t miss a beat because of the new hire’s learning curve.”

Joanne Packert, support employment manager at CSS, explains that it might be necessary for a job coach to find ways to bridge the gap between an employee’s skills and the needs of the job.

“Say a certain job has a checklist of duties, but the employee has a hard time with reading,” she says. “We’ll take photos of the tasks and make up the checklist using those images instead of the written words. We find a way to make it work.”

The job coach remains onsite for as long as it takes for the employee to get up to speed with the new position. The coach then checks in monthly with employer and employee. “If there are any problems, the employer can go immediately to the job coach,” says Swanston.

Swanston stresses that his clients aren’t charity cases, and don’t want to be treated as such.

“One of the most important things I tell employers is to treat these people the same as they treat their other employees,” he says. “Don’t make allowances or excuses if the job isn’t done right. If there are problems, don’t be afraid to speak up. Our clients want to make real, valuable contributions to the workplace and the only way to do that is to perform the job correctly.”

At Fazoli’s in Chesapeake, Va., Dawn Davis has been working in the dining room for eight years. Her manager, Lamont Morrow, says he’s happy to have her on the team. “She brings bread and water to guests as they sit down, she wipes the tables, fills the condiments, clears the tables, sweeps up,” he says. “She is very consistent, she’s a great worker and frankly, the other employees don’t like to do that job. Dawn does it very well.” And her dependability? “Dawn hasn’t missed a day since I’ve been here,” he says.

That’s typical, says Swanston. “The jobs other people don’t want or take for granted are the dreams of our clients.”

If you’re interested in reducing the turnover rate for your entry-level positions and filling them with people who are thrilled to come to work every day, agencies like CSS exist in almost every state. Start by contacting your local state employment agency for details.

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