Engaging Student Workers, Enhancing Student Life

College of the Holy Cross battles labor woes by training with the idea of building leadership.
Chef assisting student workers in the kitchen
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Marty Dudek, Associate Director of Dining Service for the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, says the labor market for student workers is as tough as he’s seen in his 22 years with the school. “It’s always been a struggle to find staff when the economy is good, but right now it’s almost impossible.” 

Dudek is competing for employees with six other area colleges and a large teaching hospital, as well as numerous local restaurants and corporations. Still, he does have an ace up his sleeve when it comes to staffing: “All first-year work-study students are required to work for Dining Service.”

That’s a labor force of more than 300 students each year, typically filling such positions as dishwasher and food runner. “There are a few students who come in with some foodservice experience, and they may work the grill, but the vast majority are unskilled,” Dudek says. “For many students, it’s the first job they’ve ever had. So training is a challenge—we have a first-time training program to get students up to speed.”

While the student workforce is large, it’s also limited. First-year students must work just one four-hour shift each week. “It used to be two shifts per week. But our academic program is very rigorous, and about three years ago we decided to make it one. We don’t want to take away from coursework.”

Student workers: shaping future leaders

As with most foodservice positions staffed by young people, the turnover rate is high—75 percent or more of student workers may not return from the first year to the next. Dining Service has implemented a “Captain” program to help persuade students to stick around.

“A Captain is a student who takes on a supervisory role,” Dudek explains. “They help train, direct and guide other student employees. Students are eligible for this position after one semester.” Captains can become a Student Organizer Apprentice during their junior year and ascend to full Student Organizer status as a senior. Student Organizers assist with all aspects of student employment, including hiring and advancement, scheduling and operating systems recording. 

“We position this as a way for students to build a resumé. Their future bosses want to see managerial experience and a record of achievement, and this is a great way to do that.”

In addition to its student workforce, Dining Service employs about 100 full- and part-time professional employees. Turnover in this segment is much lower—many of these employees have been with the school for 12-18 years—but it’s not zero. “We’re having to reach out to potential hires in new ways,” Dudek says. “We go to job fairs to find people, we to go to vocational schools to appeal to students, we advertise on social media—employers just have to be more creative these days.”

That creativity extends to the kitchen. “We’ve always cut all fresh fruit by hand, but we’re looking at using value-added produce next year. That would mean one less employee we need, and it would also cut down on waste and compost.”

The Holy Cross Dining Service staff dishes up roughly 270,000 meals each month through 10 foodservice outlets, including the Kimball Main Dining Room, a food court, Crossroads pizza & grill, a chopped salad concept, two coffee shops, a $1-million-a-year catering operation, a 65-bed retreat center and Ciampi, a residence housing 35 members of the Jesuit religious order.

Healthy is always on the menu

Under the supervision of Director Linda Nardella, Dining Service strives to deliver the healthiest, tastiest, most varied and sustainable dining options possible.

“Students today overwhelmingly say they want healthy options,” says Dudek, though he points out that Chicken Parmesan remains the most popular menu item, as it has been since he joined the college in 1996. Holy Cross looks to Menus of Change, a series of principles developed by The Culinary Institute of America and Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, to help guide efforts to expand healthy, sustainable, delicious dining options.

“Menus of Change outlines 28 steps to a better way of living and eating,” Dudek says. Steps range from being transparent about sourcing and preparation to reducing sugary beverages. “The program emphasizes plant-based eating—not eliminating meat entirely, but putting the focus on produce. We’ve added well over 50 vegetarian and majority-vegetarian items to the menu cycle in the last year, but we’re not referring to them that way. They’re plant-based dishes—and they taste great, so vegetarians and nonvegetarians alike have accepted them.”

Dining Service also removed salt shakers from dining room tables this year, following the Menus of Change directive to “cut the salt.” Now, students must access salt and pepper grinders at a “flavor station.” Dudek reports that students don’t want to get up again to season their food after they sit down, so salt use has been drastically curtailed.

Menus of Change also encourages the purchase of fresh, seasonal and local foods, and Dining Service complies by purchasing about 20 percent of its products from local suppliers or manufacturers, much of it through Worcester’s Food Hub. “I was on the team that put the Food Hub together as a means to connect local farmers with local businesses,” Dudek says. “It aggregates produce from 15-20 different farmers and delivers it to customers.”

Students perceive fresh, seasonal and local as healthy—and they also believe in the sustainability benefits of local sourcing. “Both the students and our Jesuit mission drive us to be more sustainable,” Dudek notes. Other sustainability initiatives include trayless service, recycling and composting of all waste, the elimination of Styrofoam and a commitment to become carbon neutral by 2040.

“Healthy” takes on a deeper meaning for students with food allergies and other dietary restrictions. Holy Cross has long provided special food allergy services and easily accessible nutrition information to help students make safe dining choices. Its allergy pantry, located in the main dining hall, has been certified peanut- and tree nut-free by Kitchens with Confidence. 

In 2017, Bon Appétit recognized these efforts by featuring Holy Cross on its list of “7 Healthiest Dining Halls in the Country.”

Maximizing choice

Students also appreciate the range of dining options available. The main dining room offers a soup and salad bar, burger bar, grill, pizzas and pastas, classic entrées, plant-based options, Asian stir-fry and noodle bowls, and Performance Food options—including protein foods with less than three grams of fat per ounce, sauces with 75 calories or less per half cup, vegetables that are prepared simply and complex carbohydrate foods containing adequate fiber and nutrition. 

“I would never have believed when I started 22 years ago that we’d be offering some of these items, many of them cooked to order,” marvels Dudek, a Culinary Institute of America graduate. His primary responsibilities today include purchasing and contracts, and keeping on top of production, “So I don’t get much opportunity to cook anymore. But I pitch in when I’m needed—whether it’s cooking or washing dishes.”

That willingness to do whatever it takes to make sure customers are taken care of is a hallmark of Holy Cross Dining Service—and one more way the department makes the most of its labor force. 

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