Help wanted: Easing the impact of labor shortages

As executive director of auxiliary services for a state university system, Helen is always seeking to balance operational efficiencies and student experience. Her day-to-day challenge is to make sure costs don’t rise and service levels don’t fall. Labor shortages aren’t helping. But Helen has found that automation is an answer. She’s already implemented self-service cafeteria ordering and checkout, with gains in throughput and reductions in labor costs. Now she’s considering cashier-less kiosks, vending machines, and robot delivery. Automation meets her goals of controlling costs and improving service levels — and students love it. They gave the pilot robots names, decorated them with stickers, and post pictures every day.

Infograph of Challenges in Higher Education Staffing Shortages

“A few years ago, one of the big concerns in higher education was the cost of labor, and people were thinking that they might have to shrink their staff,” says Scott Jerabek, CBORD’s director of product management. But that quickly changed with COVID. “Now, it’s the fact that they can’t get enough employees that’s on everybody’s mind.”

In a recent CBORD Insights survey, about three-quarters (73%) of respondents said they are experiencing labor shortages on a regular basis, and more than half (54%) said they are unable to fill all their open positions. And costs are still an issue: With the ongoing imbalance of supply and demand, 42% say their labor costs have increased.

Labor shortages are having an impact across campuses, but the problem is especially acute on the front lines of foodservice operations. A lack of employees leads to limited menus, longer lines, delays in filling orders, and shorter hours of operation. In many cases, universities have had to close dining locations altogether, which affects the student experience while also shutting down important sources of revenue.

While campus operations have been cutting back and doing without, student expectations for convenience and quality have remained high. Campus staff members are caught in the middle and can feel overworked and burned out, which only makes it harder to retain people and maintain service levels.

Many institutions are attacking these front-line issues with automation. For example, during COVID, many campus foodservice operations turned to mobile ordering, which continues to be used widely. But now, they are also looking more closely at automation for in-person dining. “With dining being allowed back at full capacity, we’re seeing a resurgence of self service as a way to alleviate labor shortages and serve customers,” Jerabek says.

Institutions have a growing range of tools at their disposal, from self-checkout POS systems and biometric ID scanners to self-service kiosks and food lockers. Partnerships with local merchants and national retailers also allow students to purchase food with campus flex dollars from off-site providers. Technology is already enabling early-adopter campuses with cashier-less kiosks or food delivery by robots.

Mobile ordering and front-line automation can have a real impact. But technology can also help by increasing efficiency in less obvious areas, which can translate to a reduced need for more people. For example, campuswide dining management can streamline menu changes, management of food safety, and manual data entry.

Foodservice is not the only arena for automation. Housing management systems can automate periodic activities such as student room assignments and check-in, while making it easier to manage routine activities like dorm maintenance and inspections. Integrating retail and foodservice POS data with inventory can streamline ordering and reconciliations. Centralized control over building access can reduce the need to physically check facilities, change locks, and monitor alarms. And the list goes on.

For the foreseeable future, labor shortages will continue to affect virtually every aspect of higher education, which means institutions will need to keep looking for labor-saving solutions across their operations. They will also need to continuously improve service levels for a generation of students expecting frictionless options.

Fortunately, technology is improving alongside these market challenges, creating the opportunity for everything from spot solutions to connected campuses. Automation is helping staff work more efficiently, with less burnout, so students can get services they need. In short, innovative ways to reduce the impact of labor shortages are coming to a campus near you.

CBORD Insights proprietary research, Customer Priorities Survey, Sept 2022, n=276.

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