It's feast or famine filling burger joint jobs

Unlike many Craig businesses that depend on hunting season to stay afloat, area fast food restaurants get hit during the summer when they need to double, even triple, their staffs to handle the rush.

Coincidentally, that's the same time more than 500 Moffat County teens find themselves with lots of free time that many seek to fill with a summer job.

Starting in April, Wendy's will receive at least one job application a day -- sometimes as many as five.

"We get flooded with applications," Manager Karen Worth said.

What is currently a 30-person staff will be expanded to about 60 by May, she said. Currently, 50 percent of her employees are teens. By this summer, that number could jump to nearly 75 percent as teen workers compete to fill those holes.

It's feast or famine in the food business.

McDonald's Restaurant Manager Brenda Elsbree said that it's difficult ensuring the store's 20 or so employees get enough hours during the slow winter months. But, when the summer rush hits, those employees aren't half enough to meet the burger demand. The staff at McDonald's will more than double by the time May hits.

Filling those positions isn't generally a problem, Elsbree said. Business picks up right when teens are searching for jobs or when seasonal workers are being laid off in Steamboat Springs.

"We have a really good high school base," she said. "It's really easy to pick up the numbers we need from the high school or from students who are home from college."

Worth said her biggest work force issue is competing with Steamboat businesses for workers.

"If the kids have transportation and their parents don't mind, off they go to Steamboat Springs to make good money," she said. "It's a huge deal for me. Our kids go up there, and there's usually not a lot left."

Employee retention is probably the biggest challenge of dealing with a teenaged work force.

But that's the nature of the beast.

"It just goes with the territory," Worth said.

At 123 percent, her turnover rate is the best among the 12 Wendy's restaurants in the region. Other stores, she said, face turnover rates as high as 300 percent and 400 percent.

"I work really hard to accommodate their schedules and make sure they know I'm ready to help them, not just depend on them to help me," Worth said.

Turnover is high, Elsbree said, but most of it is planned turnover -- an employee returning to school, for instance. Of its core group of year-round, full-time employees, turnover at McDonald's is fairly low, she said.

Paying to train new employees is a hefty expense in the fast-food industry. March through June, Elsbree said, are nonstop in terms of employee training. But that time commitment is made easier by advances in training techniques and technology.

"We have a really great training program," Elsbree said.

What was once learned only by doing now is taught by an interactive computer program.

The jobs themselves have also been simplified.

"You can walk in with zero skills," Worth said. "For 75 percent of my employees, this is their first job, so they have no idea what to expect or what to do. It's not rocket science."

Elsbree looks for two things: Dependability and personality. Skills can be taught, she said, but someone needs to have an innate feel for customer service.

Worth's experience as a restaurant manager has taught her the same thing.

"You either have fast food in you or you don't," she said. "There are just some people who don't fit."

The people who don't fit but stay anyway are Mary Norton's biggest issue.

Norton is a shift manager at Taco Bell/KFC.

"Our biggest problem, I think, are the younger kids who want the paycheck but don't want to work," she said.

The restaurant's staff doesn't grow as much during the summer, so there are no problems filling the vacancies, Norton said.

"Craig has a lot of people who are wanting to work, so that doesn't seem to be a problem," she said.

But, there is one other consideration. A changing culture is requiring a work force with a more specialized skill set.

A growing Hispanic population in Steamboat is forcing McDonald's to find and hire bilingual employees -- and pay a premium rate to have them.

"We have so many customers (in Steamboat ) who don't speak English at all," Elsbree said.

Christina M. Currie can be reached at 824-7031 or ccurrie@craigdailypress.com.

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