[Interview] Reducing Turnover in the Restaurant Industry with Derek Williamson at HigherMe
Derek Williamson is the President at HigherMe, a hiring platform focusing on restaurants in North America that makes it easy to recruit, hire, and onboard candidates.
Before joining HigherMe, Derek worked in the industry managing seven ice cream store locations where he later became a franchisee and owner. Since joining the company in 2017, Derek has worn many hats, partnering with thousands of restaurants to help them hire employees faster.
We (virtually) caught up with Derek from his current post in New Hampshire to get the pulse on hiring in the restaurant industry today. We cover:
- The bounceback of hiring in restaurants
- The growing role of technology in hiring
- The ways restaurants can gain a competitive advantage in the current labor market
Let’s dig in!
Hi Derek! Thanks so much for joining us. My first question is about the quit rate in the food service industry. The BLS reports that it has grown from 4.8% to 7% year over year. In your experience working with restaurant owners—how are they handling this?
Derek Williamson: COVID-19 was the initial force that pushed workers out of the industry. I’ve seen surveys that report up to 30% of the restaurant workforce permanently left the industry and got jobs in more stable industries, or they went to gig work.
That trend created the initial hiring crunches when restaurants started to open back up. The businesses where many previous restaurant workers are employed now like Amazon, Uber, and DoorDash often offered higher pay and more flexible schedules, driving not only a secondary increase in quit rates in the restaurant industry, but also the demand to increase wages.
When we’re talking to restaurant owners, we find that they’re still in reactive mode.
It’s a mindset of, “When are my employees coming back?,” rather than realizing that they have to adapt now. As a restaurant owner, you’re no longer competing with the three other restaurants in your plaza or in your neighborhood. You’re competing with the Amazon warehouse that opened up or food delivery services like Uber and DoorDash.
Now, restaurants have to focus on employer branding. They have to focus on the career tracks that they can offer, as well as coaching and leadership opportunities. In reality, some of these other industries like Amazon or DoorDash don’t provide the same kind of upward mobility and opportunities that many restaurants do. Still, they need to start communicating these opportunities where they never had to before because there has never been the kind of extreme shortage like the restaurant industry is experiencing now.
So there’s an opportunity for smaller businesses to leverage leadership programs, training, and benefits to compete with bigger and more established brands?
Derek Williamson: Yes, 100%. For example, we work with a lot of Chick-fil-A groups who have always prioritized investing in their people with training and development programs. Amongst the brands we work with, it’s no surprise that they are struggling the least. Of course they’ve still felt the impact of the pandemic, but their focus on people gives them a competitive advantage.
Moreover, we’ve often coached franchisees to tell the story of how many franchisees started as delivery drivers. Just recently, we started seeing campaigns from Domino’s Pizza where they’re finally advertising career growth opportunities because something like 95% of their franchisees started out as delivery drivers.
From a corporate level, we’re seeing this type of campaign because it appeals to folks who might have otherwise been ready to move on from the industry. Now, they’re recognizing that meaningful and longer-term opportunities are available to them.
What are some hiring and recruiting trends in the restaurant industry that you’ve seen pickup speed or new strategies that have been implemented since the outset of this pandemic?
Derek Williamson: During the initial wave of the pandemic, there was a huge demand for technology and software like ours. Many folks came to us because they realized they couldn’t rely on applicants walking in the door to drop off paper resumes. Some folks switched to things like digital interviews to adapt to the pandemic world.
In terms of the more lasting trends I’ve seen, currently, we’re seeing heavy adoption of chatbots and automation in the hiring process. We’re in a phase where people are trying to eliminate the human element of interviewing with virtual pre-screening where a manager does not need to interact with a candidate until an interview.
This trend is largely driven by the fact that employers can’t be responding to applicants 24/7, yet they know they have to get back to candidates who do apply for a job, because they will lose them if they don’t reply very quickly.
Long-term, though, we are seeing a shift in what the hiring process actually looks like. I’m talking to folks who are finally asking themselves: “Do I even need to interview applicants or can I have them pre-record responses to my interview questions?” As a restaurant owner, that means I don’t have to schedule time and ask a candidate to travel 45 minutes to my store just to answer a couple of simple questions.
“We need to make hiring more of a conversation and rethink talent acquisition as more of a community, where the process is something candidates are invited into, that they can opt into.”
I’ve seen a lot of that line of questioning, and I think there’s a real shift to make the whole hiring process less transactional. Rather than asking candidates to spend 5-10 minutes of their time to apply and then pushing them step-by-step through this process, it has to become more of a conversation.
This phase of chatbots and over-automation right now is very reactive. The most progressive employers are trying to figure out how to bring humans back into the process while making it easier for candidates to start interacting with their brands.
While we’re going to continue to see the shift to more chatbots and text applications, we need to make hiring more of a conversation and rethink talent acquisition as more of a community, where the process is something that candidates are invited into, that they can opt into. This direction actually pulls from initiatives we saw before the pandemic. Employers were planning ‘hiring parties’ and informal gatherings to reimagine the traditional interview process, which can be very intimidating for someone applying for the first time.
I see these trends converging into a much more conversational and personal experience that completely reimages traditional job interviews, formal job applications, and resumes which, we have known for decades, are not indicators of who’s going to make a great employee in this industry.
Technology is there to help you in the process but not replace you.
Derek Williamson: Yes, exactly. At HigherMe, our Product team does an exercise where two team members sit down and have a conversation with one person representing the hiring software and the other person representing the applicant. We talk to each other as people live through the experience.
For example, if I were acting as the hiring software, I’d say, “Hey, Rachel, I heard you’re interested in a job, what kind of job are you interested in?” and we dialogue through the whole experience to see and feel what that conversation would be like if there were a real person guiding you through that process. Then, we work backward to determine which parts of the process can be automated and which parts should be human interaction.
The exercise is very revealing because you’re not limited by any parameters; you can forget the limitations of technology for a second. By imagining that I am a job assistant guiding a candidate through the application process, I can get to the core of what an ideal experience would look like.
“In a restaurant setting, people spend so much time talking about the guest experience and how they want to optimize every single step from the moment a customer enters to when they walk out the door. There’s now a real shift to optimize the candidate experience in that way as well.”
In general, many employers are starting to think about things that way. In a restaurant setting, people spend so much time talking about the guest experience and how they want to optimize every single step from the moment a customer enters to when they walk out the door. There’s now a real shift to optimize the candidate experience in that way as well.
In an interview you did a few years ago, you said that competition for talent in the restaurant industry will be the greatest game of musical chairs. What are some of the ways that restaurants can have a competitive advantage and retain talent in the industry?
Derek Williamson: That’s certainly the ultimate question.
Restaurants need to recognize that this is an industry-wide issue. There’s a lot of stigma with how restaurant jobs have been positioned historically, as entry-level jobs for high schoolers, which has never actually been the case. The average age of a restaurant worker is about 35, so there’s an opportunity for restaurants to figure out and define their values to gain a competitive advantage.
They need to ask themselves: How do we treat our people? How can we differentiate on that to develop a people strategy? And this can happen from the top down or bottom up.
Every restaurant has things that differentiate them, they just need to define it. They have to treat hiring as a business within the business; they have to know their competition and understand how they will differentiate themselves.
That also means recognizing that they are not going to appeal to everyone. There’s a certain worker and a certain type of person that’s going to fit really well into the organization, see all the opportunities available, find success, and stay with the business long-term.
To gain a competitive advantage, restaurants have to dedicate time to defining their brand positioning and employer brand.
Where do you see hiring in the restaurant industry five or 10 years down the road?
Derek Williamson: We ask ourselves this question every couple months. As an industry, we are moving to create more entry-points to getting hired, to make it easier for people to start engaging with the brands they want to work with, and to make the hiring process less transactional.
We recently started working with one brand, a pizza restaurant, and their entire application consists of three questions to start the process of being hired, all via text.
They ask for the candidates’ name, their email, and which location they want to work at with a location search available to find the closest store. That goes right to a manager who then calls that candidate to have a conversation with them.
These initiatives are great because they eliminate at least five barriers to someone applying for a job. Employers who are adapting the application process will be able to differentiate and advertise on that. Then, everyone else is going to follow along. Not all restaurants will use this exact use case, but we are going to see a lot of shifts in hiring.
“We’re going to see the most forward-thinking companies invest in the kind of programs and initiatives that allow them to build their own talent pools.”
In the future, we’ll also see more restaurants re-engaging with previous candidates. Most employers bring people in for the interview—and anyone who is weeded out is never contacted again. It’s as if in the sales process, they got a lead and since that prospect didn’t answer the phone on the first call, they never try again.
We’ve encouraged employers to treat the group of candidates who didn’t get hired as a top of funnel audience. The idea is to build that audience and re-engage them when they have new opportunities come up or when hosting open interviews and hiring events.
We just did a candidate re-engagement with one employer who had many open positions available. We reached out to everyone who had applied within the last three years to ask if they were still interested in a job. The response rate was 15%, even for candidates who had applied two or three years prior, so there’s tons of value in re-engagement and we’re going to see the most forward-thinking companies invest in the kind of programs and initiatives that allow them to build their own talent pools.
Ultimately, it all comes together when employers can start owning the conversation more and treating it more as an ongoing process, not just a one and done situation where if a candidate didn’t show up for an interview, they’re never going to talk to them again.
Employers will begin to build their own talent pools and candidate databases so they don’t have to keep going to job boards and spending money on pay-to-play hiring solutions.
Thank you so much for sharing your insight, Derek!
Derek Williamson: Thank you!