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When good help is hard to find

Lorraine Graves   Dec-14-2017

Even with a sign posted, just mailing in a résumé isn’t likely to net a job.

Photo by Chung Chow

The good news is the unemployment rate is low. The bad news is workers are hard to find.

According to Shane Dagan, owner and manager of the Steveston Seafood House, “With young people, we don’t really have much of a hard time. I think it’s because we have the high school right over here and there’s not shortage of teenagers here in Steveston.”



It’s not all rosy though. “When it gets up past high school, it’s hard. One reason I believe is that the transit is poor so, we’re not able to pull from Vancouver. I can get a body in here but to have the type of staff that we’re looking for is a little harder to come by. Highly skilled is hard to find—chefs are hard to find—quality ones,” Dagan says

Bob Brammer, a partner in Tino’s Pizza at Broadmoor Shopping Centre, uses classic Canadian networking to find his employees. “I ask the guys or girls who work here if they know somebody.

Seems every time you do advertise, you get people we don’t really want.”

In country with a relatively low population, like Canada, it’s not favouritism that gets a job, it’s trust. No one will recommend a buddy for a position knowing they can’t do the job because neither person will be trusted again and word gets around. But, when an employer asks someone they trust for a suggestion for a new employee, the person recommended is usually up to the job, whether it’s working at the till, scrubbing a grill or doing geo-technical surveys. Most sectors in this country rely on word of mouth to find good employees. In fact, the vast majority of jobs in Canada, be they professional, administrative or entry-level, are never advertised. How then to find a job?

Shane Dagan says that for him, “The best thing to do is to show up in person, looking professional, looking the part. I’d have them show up at an appropriate time, when we aren’t too busy.” He also says, in addition to your résumé, including a letter is vital.

“More important is a cover letter so we now their situation, what their intentions are, I don’t have time to sit down and talk to everyone, so if they can let me know in two paragraphs or less where they are; what they are looking for; how many days; how many hours; are they looking for part-time, full-time?”

Dagan says knowing a second language gives an applicant an extra chance of getting the job. “We have staff who are bilingual and can speak Cantonese, French and Spanish fluently.”

“It’s extremely important thought, to have to have good command of English language. There can be an accent but there has to be a strong enough knowledge of the English language that they converse in a professional manner,” cautions Dagan.

“As the son of an immigrant, I appreciate the struggles that some people have, new to the country, but I also see my mom who learned English at 14. I didn’t know her back then, but I imagine it would have been a struggle,” Dagan says with a smile in his voice. His mother today works in management in a Richmond bank.

How does Brammer find new entry-level employees?

“A lot of our employees are customers or local kids. If there’s no connection then I take a résumé but nine times out of 10, they have a connection to the restaurant,” he says, again reinforcing the importance of a personal reference, of networking, even for an entry-level job.

And what about the prospective employee’s past employment? Brammer has an interesting take on that, saying, “I would prefer people to have no experience that way I can get them trained the way I like it.”

And what kind of work do the new employees do at Tino’s Pizza? “They basically have to do everything. There is nothing that they don’t have to do. I do everything. I expect you to be able to do everything. You name it--making salads, making food, working the till.”

And, while there is no formal probationary period, Brammer says, “It’s pretty obvious pretty quick who can do it and who can’t. I want to know they can handle the fast-paced situation in a kitchen. It’s not yelling like on TV shows but it’s very fast-paced. You’ve got to be on your toes. We find out pretty quickly.”

Both Brammer and Dagan say that more important than finding good staff, is keeping them.

“Really for me that’s the most important thing. Once they’re in the door, retaining the staff is easier than finding, hiring, and training. There’s a financial cost to hiring new staff,” says Dagan.

Dagan consciously works to make the Steveston Seafood House a place people want to keep working.

“We try to have fun, to make it a safe, fun zone where people can look forward to coming to work, and not view it as work but view it as fun for them,” he says.

Brammer says it’s through a sense of community, shared goals, and pride in their work.

“I guess you make them feel a part of the family. People really take an ownership role in being part of the family. I’m obviously looking at it from that angle. They feel pride in being part of my family,” he says pointing out that the other owners, who also work there, each doing all the tasks too, are his brother and his sister.

And the feeling of family, of community endures long after the employment.

“Last night we had at least three ex-employees visit, just stop by, talk, get something to eat.”

Brammer says that feeling of family is mutual and it shows, “A few nights ago, we were getting hammered and I had an ex-employee who offered to take a couple of deliveries. He just popped in and offered. That happens quite regularly.”

That night, they hadn’t staffed for a busy night. That night, people ordered a lot of pizza for delivery to watch the hockey game at home. “We got hammered before that Canuck’s game because the last couple of years they weren’t doing that well. “

Citing the effect a winning Vancouver hockey team has on the local Richmond economy, Brammer says, “Now we’re well up on game nights, like it was a couple of years ago.”

And do they stay? Brammer says, “We’ve had a few for over a dozen years, at least three or four of them but they usually start their last year high school or first of college and they tend to stay until they graduate from whatever they’re studying. We had three nurses studying at Langara. They all quit at the same time because they all graduated at same time. That was a bit of a pain. They graduated last February.”

Even then, Brammer’s loyalty and theirs to him remains. “One of the nurses was back a couple of Fridays ago because she knew that we were a little tight on staff.”

Knowing what nights Tino’s Pizza is extra busy and wanting to pick up a little extra cash, an ex-employee was in touch recently, asking Brammer, “What do you think of me working Fridays?”

Both Dagan and Brammer recognize the financial reality of the situation. “Obviously we don’t pay the best,” says Brammer but they are a family business and family sticks together. “We have our Christmas party every year. All our present and ex-employees are invited. We may not pay for ex-employees but they want to partake.”

Dagan too realizes there has to be more than pay at stake, with his costs high and the margins low in the food industry.

“I know what it costs to live here because I pay rent as well. How do we pay adults, especially with families, enough so that they can afford to live but at the same time keep the rest viable? It’s a balancing act, more of an art than a science. Because if the ship sinks then everyone’s out of a job and we can’t have that either.”

Dagan says that, out of a staff of 25, he looks for someone maybe four times per year. How does he keep so much of his staff, besides the atmosphere he tries to foster every day for his workers?

“At the end of the night, we’ll get pizza every couple of months and hang out here. A lot of the staff end up being friends just through osmosis,” he says.

So, if you are looking for that first job, look for someone who trusts you, who knows what you can do, who already has a job, then ask if they know of anyone hiring. Learn about the company.

Write up a two paragraph cover letter letting the potential employer know what kind of work you are looking for, how many hours you want to work each week and why.

For the interview, wear clean clothes appropriate to the job. Don’t even think of chewing gum. Look the employer in the eye and say you would like to work for them. If they say no, go back in three months’ time. More jobs are found because people follow up than because they apply in the first place. Ask their advice; do they know of anyone else in this field hiring? Who would they suggest you talk to? What would they suggest you do differently? You won’t take more than five or 10 minutes of their time but the advice could be invaluable. And, good luck.

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