he number of potential entry-level store employees declining, supermarkets must create their own labor pools, an executive of Finast, Maple Heights, Ohio, said during the Speaks 96 presentation at last week's annual Food Marketing Institute convention here. Henry Edwards, executive vice president of human resources at Finast, a division of Ahold USA, also said supermarkets engaged in downsizing, re-engineering or merging must be more forthcoming with managers about strategic directions if they hope to retain them. "At the entry level, recruiting and retention have become very challenging because we have a labor pool that is not growing very much and because we've had an influx of new competitors competing for new associates," Edwards said,
Because the potential labor pool used to be so large, the industry used to be able to rely on turnover, Edwards added -- "almost like we were on automatic pilot. "But the demand for labor has grown exponentially over the last four or five years. It was not that long ago that when we opened a store with 200 positions available, we would get 2,000 to 3,000 applications -- today we're fortunate to get 400." "So we have to do a lot more marketing to bring people in. Basically we're creating our own labor pool -- we're building our workforce from within."
Once people have been hired, "we have to educate, train and develop them in order to retain them, which has become a very serious challenge at the entry level," Edwards said. He put part of the blame on the public school system, which he said is "bankrupt [because] it fails to teach students basic work skills." To remedy that situation, he said Finast has developed a partnership program with schools that assigns mentors to students to serve as role models. "We're also experimenting with a much headier kind of orientation package to get people to understand who they work for and why," Edwards said. "We're doing more than just training people how to bag groceries or push carts. We're training them more on how to come to work and what is expected of them in the workforce, and hopefully we can get these people to buy into why they're working for us. "And we're also making our entry-level people more aware of advancement opportunities by posting job openings inside the store, to show baggers and clerks that the business offers other jobs they can aspire to." Finast has also had to rethink its procedures at the management level, Edwards said. "All industries are finding that managers do not come to work planning to stay at one company," he said. "To some extent, corporate America has brought this problem upon itself with all the downsizing, re-engineering and merging. As we take costs out of the business, we end up taking people out as well. "So we have managers looking over their shoulders and looking outside the company for job opportunities elsewhere. "At our company we've had to address that problem by basically opening the books, showing them that even though we may be cutting jobs in some areas, the money saved is enabling us to open new stores and our total job population is, in fact, increasing. "You have to make it clear how their jobs are going to change and how the measures of their jobs will change. You can't expect people to do the right thing if you never tell them what the right thing is. "You have to show them why you're re-engineering, what it means for the company and what it means for them." Edwards also urged retailers to "carefully explain major strategic changes to your associates, which is especially important as we move from competing only with other supemarkets to competing for food-away-from-home."