Best Practices to Optimize Staffing for University Hospitality

Universities and colleges across the country are using an innovative approach to efficient staffing for campus dining facilities.

The staffing situation today

At the moment, employment levels in private higher education and among food service businesses – which often operate campus dining facilities and can also compete with them for labor – are very close to where they were before the pandemic began. But they still lag behind the trends they were on before the pandemic:

Employment versus pre-pandemic trend in higher education (private)

Employment, seasonally adjusted (1,000s)

Source: Instawork calculations from Bureau of Labor Statistics data

Employment versus pre-pandemic trend in food service workers

Employment, seasonally adjusted (1,000s)

Source: Instawork calculations from Bureau of Labor Statistics data

And though enrollment in public colleges and universities hasn’t fully recovered, enrollment in private higher education is almost back to its pre-pandemic level – and both are predicted to grow robustly in the next several years. As a result, staffing issues may once again become more acute. 

New options in the labor market

Temporary workers can help to fill in the gaps. The supply of labor for temporary work on flexible schedules has ballooned enormously in the past several years. It includes millions of experienced professionals seeking extra hours to help make ends meet or just to keep their skills sharp – including many who used to work full-time in hospitality. On the Instawork platform alone, an estimated 3 million workers have prior experience in food and beverage and/or hospitality.

Filling seasonal needs. Already, campus dining facilities are using thousands of temporary workers at the beginning of the academic year, either to fill gaps or while student workers are still getting up to speed. Gaps can open up later in the semester, too, as students drop out of dining staff. And many students opt to leave their campus dining jobs after the first semester, so temporary workers can ensure a smooth return to service in January and February. This is how the use of Instawork Pros evolved over the last academic year, for a fixed sample of campuses:

Fall was the peak for labor demand on campuses during the last academic year

Shifts posted on the Instawork platform by schools, colleges, and universities

Note: Indexed to July 2022 = 100

Source: Instawork transaction data

Though the peak season is obviously in the fall, the demand for labor stays fairly steady from January through May as well.

“My needs kind of ebb and flow. I can’t afford to have a full staff. But when I need them, I need them.”

- Catering director at a public university

Increasing stability. Experienced workers like the ones who use the Instawork platform can provide a sort of buffer between permanent employees and student labor. When they have access to a recurring set of shifts on a flexible schedule, they can help a campus dining facility in several ways:

  • Filling in for permanent employees who are out sick or taking time off

  • Picking up shifts that otherwise would have been overtime

  • Supervising and mentoring student workers

  • Adding consistency to the workforce

The consistency point can be especially important when student diners have special requirements for food preparation or serving. Having the same workers return to the facility on a regular basis means less training and fewer mistakes.

Finding new employees. Temporary workers who return to a campus dining facility on a recurring basis are also outstanding candidates for permanent hires. They already know the business, and managers can “try before you buy” rather than hiring someone whose work they’ve never seen.

Making shifts available on flexible schedules also offers permanent employees another option if they can no longer take on a fixed schedule. Rather than losing their talent, dining facilities can keep them coming back on a flexible basis. When they’re ready to go full-time again, they can transition back.

Flexing up for special events. Experienced temporary workers are also a natural fit for special events, when campus dining organizations need to add trusted staff. This is especially true for front-of-the-house roles, where higher levels of service and professional appearance are expected. At fundraisers, ceremonies, and dinners for dignitaries, the margin for error is smaller.

Events like these often take place in the evening or on weekends, when students are usually studying, pursuing extracurricular activities, or sleeping. Events can also require longer shifts than students typically take on. A student’s 20-hours-a-week limit might not even allow them to work an eight-hour shift, complete with setup and takedown, in addition to their usual schedule. Moreover, some events – like galas for donors or dinners at officials’ homes – take place off-campus, where students don’t always have easy options for transportation.

With a more constrained student workforce for events, colleges and universities often turn to specialized temp agencies rather than their own staff or contractors who run large dining facilities. Yet one of these agencies may not be able to provide sufficient staff for a large event, so managers end up juggling contracts with several agencies at a time. By contrast, online platforms can supply large numbers of experienced workers on a single bill.

Working around student preferences. By the same token, temporary workers are a useful option for routine shifts that take place before or after service. When students are at early morning sports practice or doing homework after dinner, a rotating roster of temporary workers can pick up shifts that permanent employees are unable to fill. Students may also shy away from the dirtier jobs that experienced workers know how to handle.

Keys to success

Our business partners continue to use Instawork Pros for all the reasons detailed above and in all the modalities. They appreciate the ease of finding Pros and booking shifts on our platform, as well the technological tools – like mobile phone reminders and workplace geofencing – not offered by traditional staffing companies. Here are some of their tips for getting the most out of temporary workers.

Start booking in the summer

Labor needs are fairly predictable at the beginning of the academic year, and no one wants to be caught shorthanded. You can even communicate with the temporary workers who sign up for your shifts before the semester starts, to ensure that workplace expectations are aligned.

Write a complete shift description

The more precisely a shift is described, the more likely it is that the temporary worker who picks up the shift will be a good fit. By the same token, workers don’t like surprises when it comes to their duties on the job. So it pays to specify all of their duties, even if this includes a catchall like “and any other kitchen or sanitation duties required.”

Make sure commuting instructions are detailed

Campuses can be sprawling and mazelike, so it’s critical to let workers know exactly where to park or which mass transit option to take, how to walk to their workplace, and through which door to enter. To ensure punctuality, let them know how much time they should budget from arrival at the campus to starting work.

Keep booking well in advance

Rather than trying to estimate labor needs on a week-by-week basis, book blocks of shifts for months at a time or even an entire semester. It’s easier to fine-tune as you go, canceling or adding shifts as necessary, than to post shifts constantly while the semester is in full swing.

Give workers a chance to commit

Inside of these blocks of shifts, offer multi-day shifts or long-term assignments of two weeks or more. These options allow workers to plan out their hours and income, with the added benefit of consistency in the workplace. Having the same worker returning day after day means less time spent on training and higher productivity.

It takes a good day or two just to orient them, like where all the equipment is and how we operate. And that’s why it’s nice to have some of the same people come back.”

- Sous chef at a private research university

Allow workers to try out different jobs

The most versatile worker is the one who can fill in for permanent employees who do a variety of jobs. Gaining experience at different stations and in different roles can add a huge amount of value to the working relationship, for the worker as well as the dining facility. The best roster is filled with trusted workers who can jump in anywhere in a pinch.

Treat temporary workers right

It’s essential to treat temporary workers with the same respect and care as permanent employees – especially if you’d like some of them to become your next cohort of permanent employees. Find out during onboarding whether they would eventually like to have a permanent position, or whether they want to acquire particular skills. Take advantage of their time on-site to have conversations about their schedules, to align expectations about their working hours.

Stay in touch throughout the year

During the summer, many dining facilities close down or operate on a reduced schedule, so temporary workers may not be needed. To bring back the best and most experienced workers in the fall, it’s important to keep in touch – find out when they’ll be available, let them know when shifts will be posted, and get to know them a little better. At dining facilities where services are contracted out, pass along the temporary workers’ details if the contract changes hands in order to ensure continuity.

What it looks like in practice

The majority of shifts booked for campus dining on the Instawork platform are for back-of-house roles. Only 12% were for servers, reflecting special events and upscale sites such as faculty clubs:

The vast majority of shifts on academic campuses are for cafeterias

Shares of shifts by role at schools, colleges, and universities in 2023

Source: Instawork transaction data

More than a third of the positions were for cooks, where the vetting undertaken by platforms like Instawork is especially important. Instawork also allows campus dining managers to use separate dashboards for their large facilities and for events.

Typically, shifts for campus dining that are booked at least two days in advance fill in a matter of hours:

Campus shifts booked in advance fill within 12 hours, on average

Average time to fill at schools, colleges, and universities in 2023, shifts booked 2-7 days in advance

Source: Instawork transaction data

It’s important to note that shifts fill most quickly when workers have some foresight into their schedules, shifts are dispatched directly to rosters of trusted workers, pay rates are competitive, and workplaces offer a positive atmosphere.

“Instawork is effortless. I just go in and click, and like I said, I've not been disappointed.”

- Associate director of auxiliary and conference services at a private university