Flexible solutions: Attracting and retaining the service industry workforce 

Gillian Brookes, flexible work specialist

Gillian Brookes, flexible work specialist

Utilising a non-traditional workforce could help address the current skills shortage in the service sector and boost employee retention, says flexible work specialist Gillian Brookes. 

“The service industry typically has the highest rate of labour turnover, often at 100% a year. If it could decrease to maybe 50% or 60%, that would be a huge saving from a business perspective. And offering more flexibility for employees would help attract and retain the workforce.” 

One of the ways employers could offer more flexibility is by letting staff design their own rosters, she says. “Rather than creating a roster that doesn’t work for them or has limited scope to fit in with their own schedule means they may be more likely to ‘throw a sickie’ for say a family commitment they can’t get out of, or an appointment. They don’t feel good about it, but they are left with no other option. Then, it’s a double whammy of high turnover and one-day sick leave. 

“By providing employees with more choices, input and autonomy, it could halve your employee turnover and reduce absences. And by implementing flexibility, businesses will also see financial gains – this could also mean being able to offer perks such as retention bonuses or recognition schemes, resulting in a more engaged and committed workforce.” 

There are many ways employers could offer flexibility for frontline staff, who don’t have the option of working from home. “Instead of focusing on what we can’t do, let’s focus on what we can. We are not being as imaginative as we could be. If service workers can’t have more choice, like hybrid workers do, it holds everyone back.” 

Gillian suggests employers try piloting an idea that feels achievable and commit to it. “It would be great if employers could be more creative with it. Rather than a ‘I’m the boss and you’ll do as I say’ approach – even just going from no choice to some choice is a big win.” 

Employers who think beyond the traditional way of working could also attract a wider range of candidates. Award-winning social enterprise Jobs for Mums is helping to meet the high demand for flexible work in New Zealand, providing job placement and support for everyone from mums and dads to students and retirees. 

Jobs for Mums co-founders from left: Armela Lush, Eva de Pont, Seimoana Naisali

Jobs for Mums co-founders from left: Mela Lush, Eva de Pont, Seimoana Naisali

The site offers a platform for employers to advertise flexible job opportunities and the Jobs for Mums team provide support for candidates, including assistance with CV, cover letter, interview preparation and confidence building. “Anything to help our candidates become job ready and confident enough to apply for the roles they want,” says co-founder Seimoana Naisali. “And while it’s targeted at mothers, we are happy to help anyone looking for that flexible aspect.” 

Educating employers on the benefits of providing flexibility for families is essential, particularly with the current labour shortage for skilled workers in New Zealand. A significant percentage of Jobs for Mums candidates registered on the platform have a tertiary degree or higher and/or 10+ years of professional experience. “The reason why this demographic is not able to work, is because they are lacking that flexibility.”  

Employers who offer flexible roles can access that untapped talent pool, she says. “We all know mums can do a million things at once, we are great multitaskers. And being able to hire a mother and offer some element of flexibility allows them to provide for their children while they contribute to the economy.” 

Jobs for Mums is not just for parents of young children. There are women in all stages of parenthood on the database, including empty nesters who are now able to commit to full time work but may have lost their confidence. “It’s common for parents to lose confidence in their skills after a career gap, and they often just don’t know where to start. Mainstream job sites can be quite overwhelming – there are 1000s of jobs and you are competing against everyone in the country. Jobs For Mums provides a niche market, breaking child-caring barriers for many women who find the job search a little bit daunting.” 

Another benefit of the site is that 61% of employers offer training or development, allowing parents to train on the job as they earn. Many of the roles are also ‘school hours’, making it easier to do the school pick-up and drop-off, as well a range of remote, hybrid and ‘work from home’ options.   

“We have a very educated workforce and have advertised everything from entry-level roles to highly skilled work. We have placed geo-technical engineers and lawyers into roles in the past. It’s really come down to the flexibility employers are willing to offer.” 

Philippa Dixon, Careering Options managing director

Philippa Dixon, Careering Options managing director

Wellington recruitment agency Careering Options was an early advocate for greater equity and inclusion in the New Zealand workplace. The organisation began over 30 years ago as a community initiative to assist mothers returning to the workforce, recognising that professional women with young families had little opportunity to progress their careers, unless they were prepared to work full time and permanent.  

While it has since evolved into specialising in contract roles for all professionals seeking flexibility, managing director Philippa Dixon says a large percentage of their database is still women and it has trended towards an older, highly skilled workforce.  

“Employers prefer more experienced candidates for contracting roles; however, the younger generations are realising the value of flexible work. They also want variation in their careers and don’t want to stay in the same job their whole lives. So, we might see a trend towards more flexible roles on offer in general as younger people continue to seek an alternative to the traditional full time permanent roles.”