Training and Retaining for Best Performance

April 28, 2010 No Comments

Zoos and aquariums face the same challenges as corporations when it comes to hiring and retaining employees. No matter what the economic conditions, the right personnel have to be in place to ensure customer safety and guest satisfaction.

The Cabrillo Marine Aquarium in San Pedro, Calif., is owned by the City of Los Angeles, which means the aquarium’s employees are considered civil servants.

“Unlike a lot of zoos and aquariums, we have to practice city hiring practices,” explained Mike Schaadt, director of the 20,000-square-foot aquarium, which welcomes 300,000 visitors per year. There are 38 separate aquaria in the facility and an aquatic nursery where students of all levels can come and conduct research.

“Anyone who is interested in working here first takes a civil service test. Then, we get a list of applicants and can interview them for their various positions. They can stay on the list for two years before they have to take the test again. After we interview them, the decision to hire or not hire is up to us.”

Although the procedure for hiring remains in place, Los Angeles this year has issued a moratorium on hiring due to the state’s budget crisis. There are also worker furloughs in place where employees must take one unpaid vacation day during each two-week pay period.

“It’s hard to be going through this now, but all the city-owned facilities are feeling the same pain,” Schaadt noted. “The furloughs are better than layoffs, but it would be so nice to hire more people.”

For the employees that have been hired, the aquarium follows strict training policies. Employees first go through an orientation program and then they work with the aquarium’s senior supervisors. After that is completed, new employees move on to safety training with the aquarium’s executive director, which focuses not only the aquarium’s safety rules but the state’s rules and OSHA requirements as well.

One advantage that The Cabrillo Aquarium does have when it comes to hiring new workers is a loyal and experienced volunteer staff, many of whom cross over to become paid employees. When they become paid employees, the training is much easier as they have received a great deal of instruction during their time as volunteers.

The staff at The Cabrillo Aquarium represents a wide range of ages. While the aquarium cannot offer monetary incentive to keep staff employed, they do offer perks, such as participation in trips to the Channel Islands, which includes Catalina.

“The employees do love the islands trips. They go as chaperones for the groups. They get paid for it, and it’s a great experience.”

As manager for the Morro Bay Aquarium, located between Los Angeles and San Francisco, John Alcorn views his employees as family. A privately owned facility that is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, the Morro Bay Aquarium is home to sea lions, harbor seals, and 14 tanks representing more than 100 sea animals.

“My grandparents started the aquarium because they had a love of sea life and animals,” Alcorn said. “They are still involved in the aquarium and they are 85 and 90 years old. My youngest employee is 21, so we do have a quite the range.”

Alcorn has had little trouble retaining employees at Morro Bay. The last time he had to replace any of his staff, which includes three gift shop employees, two employees that tend to the exhibits and animals and one employee that assists with operations of the facility, was more than two years ago.

“We are a small aquarium, but very close knit,” he noted. “Once they come on board, we also come up with ways of keeping them here.”

Alcorn gives all employees a yearly monetary bonus at the end of the summer. Employees receive hands-on training and support from everyone. “If we hire someone, then we want them to become part of this family. That is important to us.”

The Birmingham Zoo in Birmingham, Ala., is home to more than 800 animals representing over 200 species. The 122-acre zoo receives more than 500,000 guests per year. To serve so many guests, the zoo assigns hiring responsibilities to several departments. As operations manager of the zoo, Marcy Falkner hires for visitor services, which includes all departments that come in contact with the public, such as the retail shops. She also hires for zoo services, which includes housekeeping and crews to set up and clean up for special events.

“All employees in the zoo must clear background and drug tests,” Falkner said. “We fill positions depending on the criteria needed. Each job or position has specific qualifications.”

Falkner works with local high schools and colleges to fill positions in the Visitors Services area.

“We offer co-ops, and there is a lot of competition for the jobs,” she observed. “It’s not your typical after school work, and the students who come here truly have a spark that allows them to engage well with our visitors.”

Turnover is not a big problem at the zoo, and many of Falkner’s staff stays with the zoo from high school through college and beyond.

“One of the big reasons I think that we have such a bond with our employees is that we welcome their input and allow them to make their position their own,” she said. “We encourage their opinions and ideas, so the employees know they have a stake in their job here.”

For the Zoo Services staff, Falkner must fill more specific roles.

“These jobs are labor intensive, so workers here are usually 21 or older and they must be able to lift 50 pounds. The higher age requirement is because they must be able to operate certain machinery, and so more restrictions apply.”

No matter what the job, all employees receive training from supervisors as well as other staff members. Each employee gets a minimum of two days of training in each area plus one-on-one training when needed. Fellow staff members also get involved in training.

“In Visitors Services, our young staff is putting together a humorous, but effective video on sexual harassment. We do realize that if the material is presented in the way younger people will understand it, they will learn more.”

The Oakland Zoo is proud of its diverse workforce, which encompasses workers of all ages and backgrounds. As director of human resources for the zoo, John Lemanski oversees the hiring of everyone from custodial workers and veterinary technicians to education specialists and marketing professionals. The 45-acre zoo property welcomed 600,000 guests last year.

“We have so many specific needs to fill so our training and hiring process vary from department to department, with each one implementing its own on boarding and training modules,” he noted. “We have workers who are not old enough to vote yet to workers who are past retirement age.”

Lemanski and his staff use various methods to hire employees. The zoo sponsored a job fair last year for concessions and food service positions and they also participated in local job fairs as well. Lemanski does advertise some positions on Craigslist and Monster.com as well as industry specific sites.

As with other zoos, the people who apply to the Oakland Zoo already have a love of animals. This commitment is a motivational tool from the start of their employment.

“I personally believe that the keys to retention are hiring right, sharing knowledge about zoo programs and goals and maintaining a steady and healthy dialogue in regards to performance,” Lemanski said. “We encourage feedback from employees, we have fair pay and benefits and we have in place a visible safety program that boosts employee morale and confidence.”

More than 100,000 guests visit the Pueblo Zoo in Pueblo, Colo., each year. The 25-acre zoo employs 18 full-time employees plus a number of part-time and seasonal workers as well. For the zoo’s Executive Director, Jonnene McFarland, the retention of workers is always challenging.

“We are not a big zoo, so we cannot pay as much as other facilities,” she noted “Our zookeepers tend to use the Pueblo Zoo as a stepping stone to bigger facilities. We understand that. People move on.”

McFarland does pay her staff retention bonuses on the anniversary of their hiring, which does help keep some long-term employees. When she does need to hire staff, she advertises locally in newspapers. For zookeeper positions that require more education and experience, she posts jobs on the Zoo & Aquarium Association website and she contacts Pike’s Peak Community College, which has a zookeeping program in its curriculum.

“We do whatever we can to get the best people for the jobs that are open,” she said. “We also provide a great deal of training, so that the staff is knowledgeable and safe in their positions.”

McFarland and her supervisory staff provide hands-on training for all new hires with zookeepers receiving more detailed instruction for their individual responsibilities.

Hiring and retaining employees at zoos and aquariums is challenging no matter what economic conditions exist. These facilities rely on creative ways to keep employees happy and safe in their work. –

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