How Cooperatives Can Navigate the Hiring Challenges of 2021

How Cooperatives Can Navigate the Hiring Challenges of 2021

  |  September 15, 2021

It is well-known that the U.S. labor market has been especially volatile this year. Co-ops are not immune from this. From struggling to retain employees to in some cases, adjusting department hours due to staffing shortages, hiring managers and GMs are under a lot of pressure to navigate these situations, while still fulfilling their co-op’s mission of serving the community.

To learn more about the current co-op hiring environment and what co-ops can do to rise up to the current challenges, we connected with Columinate member-consultants Melanie Reid and Carolee Colter. Melanie specializes in organizational culture and human resources systems. Carolee’s work focuses on employee engagement and the board/GM relationship. Both regularly provide support to Boards who are hiring a GM.

What can you say about the current HR environment at co-ops? What are you hearing from clients?

Melanie Reid: It’s really tough. I’m hearing that the candidate pool is very limited, that people don’t show up for interviews, and if you find someone to hire, they don’t always show up for their first day of work. I don’t ever recall such a challenging time in terms of hiring. However, everyone should know that we are all in this together. This is not a challenge that is specific to a community or a geographic region. It is everywhere.

Carolee Colter: Sometimes employees think that the understaffing and high turnover struggles their store is going through are somehow unique to their store. They don’t always realize this is a crisis across North America. I think managers need to be as transparent as possible with their employees about all the efforts they are making to find new staff. I know some co-ops have referral bonus programs, but I get the sense that they aren’t really making a significant difference.

Do you have advice for co-ops looking to fill GM positions? What about co-ops hiring other store and admin positions?

Melanie: For GM’s: mostly, be patient.  And know what you can and need to offer in pay and benefits to attract the talent that you are seeking. Work with a recruiter and a consultant on the process. You’ll be glad you did. There is a cost to that, but it’s well worth it! As for other positions, I think being open to welcoming people into the organization who might not have the exact skills that you need and be willing to provide them support and training.

Carolee: The ideal, from my point of view, is when the retiring or outgoing GM has been grooming a staff member for several years to develop the skills they will need to be the next GM. Then the board holds an open hiring process, recruiting externally and internally. Starting the recruiting process with a qualified candidate already in the pool is a good place to be. If the board decides to hire an external candidate, that will mean they found someone strong who could take the co-op to a new level. If they hire the internal candidate, that means that person was the best of all comers and their hiring is an affirmation. Now that scenario is not all that common, but it should be more common than it is.

What can GMs do to support their existing staff right now?

Melanie: I really lean toward keeping the existing employees as happy as possible as the best solution right now. Keep them! Find out where there are challenges or areas for improvement in the workplace and fix those things. Take the time to listen to employees’ concerns and ensure that everyone feels valued.

We launched the Columinate Job Board in July. Is the Job Board helping co-ops fill those positions?

Melanie: The Columinate Job Board is the go-to place for positions in our sector! We’ve been without this resource for a few years now, and it’s so exciting to have it back. It will take a little while to build traffic, but if we all use it, that traffic will grow quickly. Spread the word!

Carolee: Also, the Job Board is tied into ZipRecruiter so job ads are being seen far outside the world of food co-ops. I don’t think a grocery stocker in Pensacola is going to move to Sacramento in order to take a grocery stocker position in another co-op, but higher level managers sometimes do, and they make appealing candidates because their alignment with the co-op mission is already demonstrated.

Should folks be prioritizing hiring from within or looking beyond the co-op to fill openings? Are there certain situations where you recommend hiring internally vs. externally? 

Melanie: I believe that both are important. You need fresh perspectives coming into the organization and, sometimes, you just plain need specific hard skills. In regard to internal staff promotions, there are certain positions that seem to lend themselves to internal hiring like Manger on Duty positions for example or any position that benefits from a lot of institutional knowledge. If promoting internal candidates to supervisor level positions, it’s super important to ensure they get the training and development that they need. Our sector isn’t always the greatest at this. I call it, “wave the magic wand” and poof…you are a manager. It doesn’t always go very well.

Carolee: For marketing, IT, HR, and financial manager positions, it’s not so easy to hire from within. The people in assistant positions in those departments (if the co-op is big enough to have actual departments and not just individual managers) are often doing a job that is much narrower than their manager. For example, an HR manager in a larger co-op might have an assistant who focuses on recruiting and another who does benefits administration. Potentially those people could become the next HR manager but they’re going to need a lot of development, e.g. taking classes outside of work. A graphic artist isn’t primed to be the next marketing manager. The A/P Bookkeeper is going to need a lot of education to be ready to be the next financial manager. I see the value of a co-op paying for their education but they’d have to really want that career move. Also, it seems to me that the high staff turnover that is creating so many problems for our clients is not occurring in administrative or mid-level positions.

Carolee, you have insights into connecting with and hiring different populations. Could you talk a bit about that?

Carolee: It’s time to give another look at populations that co-ops have never tried to reach before.

  • One would be formerly incarcerated people. I noticed that Community Co-op Market in Tallahassee has a link on their website to a local program called Re-fire which trains former prisoners in culinary arts and finds them food service jobs–including at the co-op. Minnesota Rise in the Twin Cities is a program that supports employers and employees re-entering the job market after prison. Reading The New Jim Crow for the Abolitionist Challenge, opened my eyes to the fact that a lot of people in prison don’t belong there and are no danger to society.

  • Another population that is untapped is refugees from other countries. Due to COVID and the politics of the previous administration, the flow of refugees got choked off to a trickle, but that may change. For example, refugees who got evacuated from Afghanistan are getting resettled in America and looking for jobs.

  • Every now and then when conducting a survey, I meet an older person who had retired from the workforce, but then decided to come back to work by taking a job at the co-op. Maybe they got bored or lonely. Maybe they needed the money. They are experienced workers and know what it means to get to work on time. And even if some have physical limitations, not every job requires lifting 50 lbs all day long.

Another thought is redesigning jobs to make them more accessible for people with disabilities. That’s a population that has never been as fully employed as they want to be. There are resources to help employers there, too. Perhaps co-op managers feel they don’t have the time to redesign jobs or develop relationships with other organizations and bring in people who are really and truly diverse. But maybe this is what employers have to start doing. And hiring ex-prisoners, older people, people with disabilities, refugees–all that fits with the cooperative values.

Thanks for sharing all your insights, Melanie and Carolee! Anything else you want to add?

 Carolee: The story of the labor market crisis is far from over. Who can predict what will happen? But like the climate, it’s not going to go back to the way it used to be. So we have to adapt if we’re going to survive.

Melanie: Hang in there everybody!


Visit the Columinate Job Board to see more than sixty openings at co-ops around the country. Job postings are free until October 1, 2021.

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