HELP WANTED!

Supermarket operators all across the country are feeling the pinch.No, it's not the customer in the produce aisle roughing up a tomato. It's the squeeze of trying to find suitable workers.A myriad of labor problems that include higher turnover rates and applicants who lack the necessary skills are on the menu these days.To combat the problem, supermarket operators are attempting to come up with creative

Supermarket operators all across the country are feeling the pinch.

No, it's not the customer in the produce aisle roughing up a tomato. It's the squeeze of trying to find suitable workers.

A myriad of labor problems that include higher turnover rates and applicants who lack the necessary skills are on the menu these days.

To combat the problem, supermarket operators are attempting to come up with creative ways to find help.

"There is no relief in sight in the short-term. The industry is in a deep hole, suffering with short staffing -- resulting in service levels dropping.

"Gone are the days of putting a sign up in the window one day and being fully staffed with great people the next," said Ernie Monschein, director of education and human resources development, the Food Marketing Institute, Washington.

The Charlotte, N.C.-based Harris Teeter chain looks to senior citizens for help.

"Because the country's demographics are changing and the teenage pool is getting smaller, we are looking to the growing senior population," said Jessica Walter, communications manager at Harris Teeter.

According to Walter, Harris Teeter targets senior citizens for job recruitment by placing ads in publications targeted to that age bracket. The food retailer also keeps up a presence at senior job fairs.

"We are also doing Internet recruiting in addition to the more traditional civic job fairs, newspaper and radio advertising," said Walter.

Stater Brothers Markets, Colton, Calif., now emphasizes growing their own, if you will, when it comes to finding employees.

"We take a 'back to the future' approach," said Jack Brown, president and chief executive officer at Stater Brothers. "We are refocusing our efforts on people. We grow our people up through the company. Everybody starts as a courtesy clerk."

After 18 months, Stater courtesy clerks are eligible for checker training.

"Assistant managers, store managers, district supervisors, district managers, regional vice president of retail, senior vice president of retail and this president all started bagging groceries," said Brown. "This demonstrates to our associates that if they work hard they can move up. It is a powerful incentive to stay."

Brown mentioned the investment Stater has made on technology activities. "Sometimes we may have strayed from the notion that it takes people to make a supermarket hum."

Stater posts available jobs on a telephone job line and it recruits for the courtesy clerk jobs at the store level.

One West Coast supermarket executive takes recruiting into his own hands. On the back of his business card he has printed: "You would be a great addition to our team."

When this executive gets excellent customer service at a gas station, dry cleaner or fast-food eatery, he gives this card to the worker who is responsible for it. The card encourages the recipient to apply at the nearest store. In a sense, this pre-qualifies the applicant with the store's manager.

Safeway Stores, Pleasanton, Calif., has turned to printing shopping bags with their recruiting message. Some operators are considering in-aisle promotion. Others are tapping the expertise of their marketing department, who tend to be result oriented.

Experts point out that it's not just other food retailers that supermarkets must compete with to get qualified workers, since gas stations and fast-food outlets may be eyeing the same potential worker as well.

"Employers need to appeal to an applicant's values," said Bob Wendover, director, Center for Generational Studies, Aurora, Colo. "Employees today will job hop for 50 cents an hour. Employers need to set themselves apart to get applicants."

Experts agree that marketing job recruiting techniques to targeted audiences is a method that needs to be explored.

"The message delivered to at-home moms, teens and older candidates is very different," said Wendover. "They each have different reasons to work. It could be social opportunities, money or training."

"The Internet plays a large part in reaching new talent," said Diana Maness, site manager for FMI's Superjobmarket.com, an industry specific Web job posting service.

"Our industry needs to embrace the medium and send a message that the supermarket industry is an exciting place to work. Additionally, the Internet is a great leveler. Independents and large chains have an equal opportunity to go after the same candidates."

Most operators with an on-line presence have links or places on their Web sites where job opportunities are posted.

In some cases, prospective applicants can apply for jobs on-line, or download an application that can be printed out and mailed.

Additionally, the Internet presents some recruiting cost savings. Industry statistics reveal that hiring through classified ads costs $1,382, while hiring via the Internet is $152.

"Don't use one method of recruiting," Monschein said. "Using the Internet alone won't solve the employment problem.

"Use word of mouth. Direct recruiting efforts to schools. Look to in-store promotions to bring applicants. Offer flexibility with bus and childcare schedules and be sensitive to high school athletes who need time off for their sport."

Another recruiting strategy being employed by operators is offering a referral bonus to employees who bring in a new member.

Sometimes the best employees come from in-house recommendations, experts said.