Hiring Practices for Highly Skilled Positions

When a brewery is growing, sometimes the decision is easy: make more beer. Oftentimes, however, it’s more complicated than that.
It could be the right time to hire a specialist. Timing is everything.
“Knowing when you need to hire a specialist is something you just ‘know,’” said Adam Robbings, co-founder/brewmaster of Reuben’s Brews in Seattle. “It’s a feeling more than a communicable calculation. With experience, you can make predictions, but we’re learning on a day-to-day basis ourselves.”
Of course, the bottom line is always a consideration as well.
“The timing is very tough,” Robbings said. “For very technical roles, there is often a long lead time to hire because you don’t find the perfect candidate overnight. Technical roles are often expensive hires, giving you a hit to EBITDA (earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortization) that you need to manage.
“In general, it seems like a step change in production volume is when specialist roles should be hired. They are required then, due to the extra workload, and you can use the EBITDA generated from the higher volume to help fund the role.”
Oliver Adams, operations manager at Mother Road Brewing in Flagstaff, Arizona, sees specialty hires as way of investing in the company.
“Essentially, we make specialty hires based on the long-term strategic needs of the brewery,” he said. “These hires are costly, so we will only create and then hire for positions in which candidates can grow with our brewery, and, simultaneously, add value for many years to come.”
Gauging the potential effectiveness of a new hire can be difficult too.
“Sometimes, you think you are making a rock star hire, which subsequently increases the wages you have to pay, only to find out they can’t live up to the hype,” said Fred Maier, vice president of Susquehanna Brewing in Pittston, Pennsylvania. “Money is usually the most finite resource in a small, young company, and a poor hire is a great way to waste a ton of it.
“It’s kind of cold, but we try to follow the ‘hire slow and fire fast’ mantra. It’s important to recognize if the relationship is going to work out quickly. If it’s not, move on. If it is, though, rewarding the person and investing in them is equally important.”
For Reuben’s Brew, it focuses on competencies during the interview process rather than specific experiences.
“By competencies, we interview for more generic skill sets rather than having experience of completing specific tasks, Robbings said. “So, rather than asking for experience ‘filling kegs,’ we’d look at the competencies that make that up, which include working with machinery, strong attention to detail, a focus on keeping busy, a love for the beer industry and going the extra mile. A person with these attributes would be able to do the job, and possibly better than someone who’s already done it.”
At Susquehanna, it’s a well-thought out and thorough process when it comes to specialty hires.
“For someone our size, which is relatively small, specialty hires take a ton of planning and thought,” Maier said. “We are a family-run business. Many of us have been working together for 10-plus years between this venture and the last.”
Neither brewery says experience in the craft beer industry is necessary, and, sometimes, it actually can be a hindrance. Basically, Robbings said he likes to start from scratch when he hires people, but with specialty hires, it can be a challenging set of circumstances.
“In general, we like hiring people who aren’t necessarily trained,” he said. “We have very specific processes that we follow — some of which are unusual — which we believe is a key reason why we’ve won more awards than anyone else in the state since we opened in 2012.

“People who have experience tend to bring their previous employer’s practices with them, which often are fundamentally different to ours. This makes specialty hires particularly difficult because you are hiring people for their experience, how they’ve worked before. So, the technical interview questions focus on whether a candidate can understand the different ways of doing certain processes — the gray versus the black and white — rather than just the way they’ve done these processes in the past.”
Culture is another concern. Will the specialty hire fit in at the company?
“I hesitate to say they have to fit our culture,” Maier said. “If we wanted someone just like us, we wouldn’t need to hire anyone in the first place. It’s our responsibility to make a new person feel welcome. I think a main reason for a specialty hire is to shake things up a bit, and breathe new life into areas that have been lacking sufficient talent and resources.”
And sometimes, a cultural fit can trump a technical fit.
“When hiring at any level in the organization, we intend to keep cultural fit as a priority,” Adams said. “There have been scenarios in which candidates were technically superior to others, but did not fit culturally, so we had to make a decision to go with the less ‘technically skilled’ candidate. We believe that technical skill can be taught with good training and mentoring, as opposed to teaching cultural fit — which is emotionally tolling and virtually impossible to teach.”
The way Robbings sees it, fitting into the brewery’s culture is a crucial and mandatory step.
“Ensuring cultural fit is the most important element of the interview process in our all roles, but particularly with respect to key roles,” he said. “Key roles are leadership roles in the team. They influence multiple people, and can help build or destroy a culture. It is relatively easy to determine whether someone can do the job, whether they have the technical expertise of a key role. It’s a lot harder to identify a strong cultural fit.
“One warning sign is someone who doesn’t know much about our brewery, someone who doesn’t know our story or what we are about. That means they don’t want to join us because of who we are, which is often a warning sign for us. We want people who want to join us specifically because of our culture and everything else we’re about.”

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