How AI Technology Can Help You Recruit, Hire, and Retain Employees

AI helped a 150-unit restaurant company save $840K in recruitment ads and shorten the hiring process from 10 days to 36 hours.

Oct 16, 2023 - 15:23
How AI Technology Can Help You Recruit, Hire, and Retain Employees

In an era marked by technological innovation and evolving consumer preferences, the restaurant industry finds itself at a crossroads. As a leading advocate for growth and development of restaurants across the nation, the National Restaurant Association is committed to exploring cutting-edge solutions that can address the challenges faced by operators. 

One such solution that’s gaining traction is the integration of artificial intelligence (AI) to revolutionize employee recruitment, hiring, and retention processes. Embracing AI for hiring needs can be an effective way to enhance your back office experience, productivity, and bottom line.

“The struggle can be real,” said Josh Secrest, vice president of marketing and advocacy at Paradox, the conversational hiring platform based in Scottsdale, Ariz., that’s helped global employers like McDonald’s, Nestlé, and General Motors transform their hiring experiences. “It’s pretty challenging out there if you’re in the restaurant industry.”

Secrest, who recently hosted a webinar on using technology to recruit, hire and retain employees, cited the Association’s State of the Industry Report when he shared that well over half of restaurants are understaffed and that a majority of the industry predicts staffing challenges will be as or more challenging this year than last. 

“The most recent overall labor statistics say we’re at a 3.8% unemployment rate, which means we have a four million-person gap between labor demand and supply,” said Secrest. According to the Association, there have been more than 1 million unfilled job openings in the hospitality sector alone for the last 29 months. “If you look at the numbers on Indeed, job-seekers are applying for 15 jobs at a time. If you’re an operator, as soon as you get an application, you almost have to assume you're competing with 14 other employers.”

In the webinar, Secrest talked with Courtney Dempsey, director of digital recruiting, Southern Rock Restaurants, LLC, Franklin, Tenn., about her experience since she joined the company in early 2022. Southern Rock Restaurants is one of the largest single-concept franchisees in the country, owning and operating more than 150 McAlister’s Delis in 13 states.

Dempsey said the big problem when she came on board at Southern Rock was “the lack of ability to reach out to a volume of applicants that we needed at that time.” The company’s hiring process was hampered by a huge bottleneck in the screening and interview scheduling process, increasing the hiring time, which often meant losing candidates to other job offers. 

Maintaining a pool of candidates from which to draw, since most restaurants were understaffed, was costing the company money. 

“The expenditure just to maintain 250 weekly applicants at that point was close to $900,000 annually,” Dempsey said. She also saw a gap between “lifers” (those who commit to a career), millennials who have little industry experience, and Gen Z who want everything now. To attract Gen Z applicants, especially, she knew the company would have to reach them where they live—on their phones.

“We had to become more proficient in what we were doing to accommodate the needs of the applicant because it’s urgent to the applicant, where we don’t have time or haven’t afforded time to do it,” she said. The hiring process also had to be shortened to take pressure off the already understaffed restaurants. 

Southern Rock’s solution was Paradox’s conversational applicant tracking system (ATS). The ATS uses an AI avatar that the company named Savannah to converse with applicants in a way that makes them feel like they’re talking to a real person. After asking for an applicant’s name, Savannah follows up with additional screening questions, such as what position they’re applying for, what hours they’d like to work, and whether they have experience. By reducing the number of screening questions to just three, applicants stay engaged, enabling Savannah to quickly schedule them for an interview. She gives them a choice of dates and times, then reminds them an hour before the appointed time, and reschedules them if necessary. 

Knowing that about 95% of applicants are mobile users helps in other ways, too. Using a geolocator, the system knows where the applicant is, and which of the company’s restaurants are closest, as well as the positions open in those stores, so applicants don’t have to scroll through pages of job descriptions. And when scheduling interviews, the system can automatically populate the store’s desktop and the applicant’s phone calendars with the interview date and time. 

GenZ job-seekers also take corporate culture into account when evaluating job opportunities, so the company has geared its job postings to the audience, using appropriate verbiage. 

“Our company tagline is, ‘have fun, no regrets,’” Dempsey said. “So I made that the very first thing job applicants see, and who wouldn’t want to work for a company like that? Gen Z is culture driven. They want to work in a space where they feel welcome, invited, and not just another number passing through the store, and we are able to provide that.”

The company makes it easy to apply for jobs, putting QR codes on everything in the store from napkins to cups. And its recruitment efforts include “Team Spud,” a text-to-apply feature that lets applicants find job positions available by ZIP code. 

“If you love the product and you love the company, you should love working for us, period. So let's make this as easy as possible,” Dempsey said.

With Savannah handling pre-screening questions and interview scheduling, the company was able to cut actual interview time from 30 minutes to 15, saving managers a ton of time and keeping them on the floor where they belong. And once the interview is over, all a manager has to do is click onboard or hire, or “future considerations.” Applicants who are hired automatically get the necessary paperwork to fill out. “Future considerations” aren’t rejected but are instead held in reserve to potentially fill open positions in the future. 

As a result of using the system, Southern Rock has reduced the time lag from application to hiring decision from 10 days to 1.5 days; has seen the number of applications rise from 250 per week to 2,500 or more; has a database of 82,000 applicants upon which to draw when the need arises; and has flipped the 70:30 ratio of job ad postings to organic recruitment to 30:70, saving the company about $840,000. 

The company recently added payroll to the system to help streamline HR and payroll operations, too. “Conversational ATS is a game-changer,” Dempsey says. “But I’m really excited to see the retention factor built into the system. So that’s my next focus.”

As the industry evolves, embracing AI presents an exciting opportunity to shape the future of the restaurant workforce. AI should complement human decision-making while streamlining the workload, enhancing the overall employee experience.

You can find out more by listening to the webinar here.