NATIONAL REPORT — Convenience store operators across the country agree: the most pressing challenge in the industry today is the ability to recruit and retain good employees. To overcome this challenge, it is imperative that leaders step up, according to a recent Convenience Store News virtual roundtable.
Sponsored by Altria Group Distribution Co., the TWIC Talk roundtable entitled "The Leadership Imperative" featured past Top Women in Convenience award winners Suzanne Cramer, vice president of human resources at York, Pa.-based Rutter's, and Stephanie Nycum Doliveira, vice president of human resources at Altoona, Pa.-based Sheetz Inc., as well as Sarah Alter, president and CEO of the Network of Executive Women.
The recent labor crunch began before spring 2020, but the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the problem, leading to what some experts today have called the hardest labor market in 60 years.
At Sheetz, the company responded by doubling down on its investments in company culture and its employees.
"We viewed doubling down on both as the way we are able to attract and retain talent in this highly competitive time," Doliveira said. "We find the company culture investment as a way to not only tell our story internally, but also externally."
Sheetz's investments include raising wages, as well as helping to foster connections between employees during this difficult time. Company leaders want employees to feel that more than a job, Sheetz is a place they can find their "work family," she said.
It is very important that frontline employees feel safe and secure during vulnerable situations. During the pandemic, this can include practices such as employee health monitoring with temperatures taken before a shift, requiring masks, extra sanitizing, and asking customers to follow safe practices.
Frontline employees also need to feel they are recognized for the additional responsibilities they are taking on. Sheetz responded to this by offering temporary pandemic wage increases, as well as permanently raising wages across the board.
Doliveira also recommends starting an employee referral program. Although Sheetz had previously tried such a program and found it didn't make a significant difference, it's seen better results during the pandemic, with approximately 20 percent of new hires this past summer coming via referral. It is a win-win for both the company and job seekers who want to be cautious, she noted.
"This is a great time for employees to refer people they know," she said. "They can speak very directly to things [a company has] done to ensure a safe workplace."
She also strongly advises fellow c-store operators to cultivate mentor relationships.
"Holding onto great employees is a critical component of success. When we invest in relationships, people feel seen, heard, invested in," she said, adding that mentoring also passes on institutional knowledge and builds careers. "Today's individual contributors are tomorrow's managers and leaders."
Rutter's Cramer stressed that while other factors matter, money always ends up as the determining factor for potential employees.
"Salary is always a key factor," she said. This is particularly true for women, who were disproportionately affected by the pandemic, with many leaving the workforce voluntarily or involuntarily for a variety of reasons, such as caregiving.
At the same time, the pandemic prompted many women to reset their priorities. If work can be done from home, they need flexibility; if it can't, companies should offer flexible scheduling.
Today's workers also value benefits and a variety of different kinds of support. She highlighted backup daycare as being particularly valuable and a unique benefit.
Cramer noted that even among retailers that offer industry-leading wages, getting employees to stay continues to be the challenge. Thus, giving employees a career path gives them a reason to remain with the company. Instead of turning to outside recruitment, Rutter's emphasizes career development, which creates an internal talent pipeline.
"We value promotion from within," Cramer said, pointing out that 95 percent of Rutter's current store managers moved up within the organization.
In her own mentorship role, Cramer has seen her team benefit from having the freedom to face a challenge head-on, come up with their own solutions, and then turn to her for feedback.
As retailers adjust to the changes caused by and accelerated by the pandemic, Alterdescribed how compartmentalizing one's job and one's home life is no longer an option for most people.
"As employers now, we have to recognize the whole person," she said. "Work and life have collided."
Mental and spiritual health matters as much as physical health, she added. Businesses that want to look out for their employees should educate themselves on the best practices to offer this new kind of support.
Alter lauded Target Corp. for its response to the racial justice protests in summer 2020 and how it put serious effort into supporting female leaders of color and recognizing the stress they have always felt.
Being a company that cares about diversity, equity and inclusion and goes beyond lip service is important, as many talented employees factor that into their career decisions, she said. This also enables companies to benefit from employees' diverse experiences and perspectives.
Alter acknowledged that if a company is notably non-diverse to start with, it may need to trade a focus on internal promotions in order to cast a wider, more diverse net. It is important for companies to reflect the communities they serve.
Regardless of the specific measures an organization decides to take, she stressed that companies need to pursue diversity if they want to appeal to great workers.