Since the beginning of the 2021-22 school year, almost every open eatery on campus has had some form of a “We’re Hiring” flyer by their registers. Between long lines and even longer wait times, there’s clearly something up.
As executive director of the Arizona Student Unions and Dining Service Programs, Todd Millay knows exactly what the problems are regarding the student unions and just how to fix them.
“I’m the fiscally responsible person for the Student Unions. Our major buildings here are the Student Union Memorial Center, Park Student Union, Highland Market and 33 restaurants across campus,” Millay said.
In addition to managing the student unions and meal plans, he also handles staffing the restaurants as well.
With campus slowly going back to what it once was, there has recently been an influx of students and faculty that has overwhelmed the student unions and their staff.
“Challenging might be the best word for [handling staff shortages],” said Millay. “For scope, when the university wasn’t really open, we were running at 30-35% of what I would call a normal business model. This year we’re running at about 80-85% of normalcy. We’ve had a 50% boost in business in about 6 months. Our absolute biggest challenge with that though has been staffing.”
The student unions’ 50% boost in business has overran the staff and almost every restaurant is looking for new employees to ease off some of the pressure that the student union restaurants are facing.
“It’s been brutal from a workforce perspective. We are at a seven out of ten right now for scale. Ten being ‘Hey we’ve got everyone back, we're fully operational,’ we’re like at a seven. It’s okay, but it’s not where we need or want to be,” Millay said.
This seven out of ten rating includes the student workers on campus. According to Millay, about 900 students are employed by the Student Unions and there are 1200 student positions available in total.
“Student workers cannot work more than a certain amount of hours but they are working more hours than usual to help us out. Another thing to keep in mind is that everyone is new, generally speaking, all of our student workers are new. So when you're getting your coffee, particularly in these first few months, that’s a new student. It may even be their first job ever,” Millay said. “So, not only are the lines longer, the service is slower because they’re learning a trade all at the same time.”
But the issue does not only lie with part-time student workers, the issue also falls with the amount of experienced, full-time workers.
“We have restaurants closed right now. Cactus Grill is closed, Core is closed, Bagel Talk is closed, Arizona Room is closed, Mas Tacos is doing half-time, Sabor is closed. In that sense, we do not have enough employees to open the restaurants because we physically just can’t,” Millay said.
Staffing restaurants in the union is proving to be quite the issue, despite being only 300 students off from fulfilling their student staff quota. It is full-time, experienced staff that is making the opening of campus restaurants a challenge.
“We don’t have the people, we don’t have experienced cooks or experienced leadership so we can’t get them open,” Millay said. “We’re missing about 40 full time workers right now. We just hired 42 full-time workers that we were missing, which is a Herculean effort because in a summer we typically hire six. Those missing 40 give us the consistent supervisor, cook, and professional staff to open a restaurant. Then we get the students to help support that effort.”
These staffing setbacks are not as bad as Millay says they could be, but there is definitely still more to the issue.
“At the same time, we have record enrollment," Millay said, "so you’ve got more people, but now the service of restaurants has shrunk. Which ultimately means more lines, it means overtime for our staff, it means people standing on their feet working as fast as they can. There’s no solution other than to work through it and hire as much as we can.”
According to a press release, the University of Arizona just welcomed its largest first-year class in history with 8,700 students coming to the university. Even with this very large class, there are still three other classes of university students, many of whom may possibly still eat on campus.
“The students though have been amazingly patient and understanding. We know you don’t enjoy the line or the extra wait time at the window, but [the students] have been a pretty good crew,” Millay said.
Chick-Fil-A is one of the busiest restaurants in the Student Union, with long lines visible as soon as you enter the Student Union Memorial Center. With this surge in demand, they have also made adjustments to make service more streamlined and easier for both students and employees.
“Although we have been low on staff, we are making sure our staffs’ on boarding process is clear and as helpful as possible for this new normal,” said Marketing Coordinator Riccy Partida. “Additionally, we have added ordering kiosks to assist with the shortage of cashiers. This also allows our team to focus on different tasks outside of cashiering such as cooking and putting orders together.”
Another change that Chick-Fil-A has adopted is producing ahead of demand.
“This time around, we have tried to prepare our most popular items in bigger quantities. This helps get our orders out quicker and reduce long wait lines,” Partida said
Despite these glaring issues regarding the student unions, there are some strategies being used to try to help and alleviate this burden.
“We have completely readjusted our marketing budget, the primary objective now is hiring. That would include a pretty long list of efforts that we historically never do,” Millay said.
In readjusting their marketing department, the department has made various efforts thus far to go back to what it once was.
“We’re going to job fairs, and we’ve held four job fairs here ourselves looking for both full time and student workers. We’re going out into the Tucson community that has job fairs, like the City of Tucson or other Pima County leadership job fairs. We’re doing mass mailing like postcards to people in the community looking for cooks and things of the sort. We’re on social media, on all buses and the chairs that wait for buses. We’ve advertised in culinary magazines in Tucson like Foodie Magazine for example,” Millay said.
The Student Unions have seen many changes within the last two years due to the pandemic but with the leadership of Todd Millay, the hard work of part-time student workers, and hopefully full-time employees that we will soon be joining the Arizona workforce, it will be a smooth running machine with open restaurants and shorter lines and wait times.
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