How to recruit staff in a post-pandemic jobs market

As UK job vacancies have risen to record highs, staff recruitment has become just one of the many issues facing convenience retailers in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. “I was at a meeting recently, and every single retailer there had issues with hiring staff. It’s extremely difficult at the moment,” says Sue Nithyanandan, from Costcutter Epsom in Surrey. “I’ve been lucky because I have some university students to tide me over the summer, but going into the autumn I’ll have to recruit.”

In a post-lockdown world, prospective staff want more than ever to be comfortable in their hours, something that convenience can’t promise as much as other professions. “One of the hardest things is to employ somebody who can’t work certain days,” says Cambridge Nisa and Budgens retailer Ronak Patel. “Then you have to cater for their needs and it’s difficult to do that in retail.”

Dave Hiscutt, of Londis Westham Road in Weymouth, Dorset, says precision is a key part of job advertising to avoid timewasting. “We’re reconsidering how we’re recruiting, how we describe job adverts and what we’re specifically recruiting for,” he says. “We’ve had to go back to the drawing board. Different positions have different functions and different people have different aspirations.” Sites like Indeed can allow retailers to craft detailed job postings with expected roles and hours.

Just as retailers don’t want to waste time recruiting, it’s important for them not to give potential staff the run-around. “You need to be straight onto an applicant, almost within an hour of them applying,” says Hiscutt. “I worry that makes us seem too keen, but I find I’m ringing someone the following day and they’ve already got an interview elsewhere. Don’t be scared to be too keen because someone else will be.”

In-store adverts still work

Ronak Patel, who runs two Nisas and a Budgens in Cambridge

Advertising open positions online is now standard practice, but Ronak Patel, who runs two Nisas and a Budgens in Cambridge, says the best staff he has hired are those who have seen signs in his stores.

“We always have ads out in case we get good candidates. We have our own application form they can pick up from behind the counter and hand back to us,” he says. “In it, we get them to write the times they can do. An applicant who puts down any time, any day, I’d probably interview first because it gives us flexibility if anything happens in future.”

The other key difference between in-person and online applications is that Patel can sense differing levels of eagerness. “From Indeed, I get a lot of timewasters or people who have been at places for a few months and then moved on. I don’t want that because I don’t want to train people up only to lose them,” he says.

Look internally for senior roles

Multi-site Costcutter retailer Peter Patel

Multi-site Costcutter retailer Peter Patel finds it important that staff know they can work their way up in his business. He will therefore try to recruit internally for any supervisor or managerial roles available.

“The first call is always to go internally,” he says. “If we think we’ve got someone we can move up the scale, we’ll go to them first. It still creates a new position for an assistant role to be hired externally.”

For Patel, looking at existing staff for these roles is not only an incentive for people to join at an assistant level and work their way up, but it also means he’s not looking at an unknown quantity for an important senior position.

“You can train most people to do a job, but if they can’t talk to people, that’s hard to train,” he adds. “Once someone is within the business, you can get a good judgement of whether or not they have that potential.”

Be specific about positions

Dave Hiscutt of Londis Westham Road in Weymouth, Dorset

Dave Hiscutt, of Londis Westham Road in Weymouth, Dorset, has observed changes in prospective employees’ preferences since the pandemic. “The way people want to work has changed. People have enjoyed their time at home and made their social and family lives more of a priority,” he says.

Hiscutt’s job postings, therefore, are more specific than they used to be to attract the right candidates. “You used to say, ‘You need to be available from 6am to 10pm, your shifts will be somewhere in between,’ but more people want fixed shifts or more structure,” he says.

“We’ve changed the heading on online ads so they say specific timings and workstations such as food-to-go counter, 6am-to-12pm shifts. These factors help with recruitment and retention. We try to be upfront about reliability so they understand it’s a key aspect of small business.”

Look to the youth

Sue Nithyanandan of Costcutter Epsom

A skills deficit among young people is just one of the pandemic’s many consequences, as they were unable to effectively study or seek work experience with so many industries closed.

As a result, Sue Nithyanandan, of Costcutter Epsom, says they are a good solution to short-term recruitment woes. “I’m planning to go through the colleges to see if some students are interested,” she says. “It has worked for me during the periods when they come back from their studies. They are good-calibre workers, they’re clever and understanding.”

Having younger employees could be a key part of a retailer’s cost-mitigation strategy, with lower wage bands for workers under 21. However, with their schedules disrupted by the academic year, Nithyanandan says they’re not a cure-all. “Hanging onto your longstanding staff is now the crucial thing,” she says.

Explore our comprehensive archive of advice and insight for independent retailers