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Retail, recruiting and the pandemic - how Pilot Flying J has dealt with a changed market using SmartRecruiters

Brian Sommer Profile picture for user brianssommer October 19, 2021
Hiring large numbers of people is always challenging. Doing so in a pandemic is more so and large-scale hiring in remote areas is the worst. Here’s how travel center retailer Pilot Flying J did all of the above this year.


Retailers and hospitality firms have endured a number of pandemic challenges - talent shortages, The Great Resignation, adapting to new business models, wide fluctuations in staffing needs, rising labor costs, etc. - and that only represents just some of the recent challenges.

The hiring process, which was quite dysfunctional pre-pandemic, got worse during it. In-person interviews weren’t always possible. The time it took for employers to even decide on specific applicants grew. On-boarding was challenging. As a result, companies ended up short-handed and employee engagement plummeted.

On top of all of that, it needs to be remembered that these industries are historically famous for high-turnover rates in their workforces. Some fast-food and convenience stores can experience turnover rates of 12 times/year/position. Churn is an expensive, time-consuming and constant challenge/headache for hiring professionals and store managers.

Recruiting in remote markets

Retailing and hospitality firms in rural or remote locations have additional challenges:

  • These firms often use technology to find talent for their urban operations; however, that isn’t necessarily viable in non-urban areas. For example, many potential workers may not possess home computers or have broadband access for same.
  • Some rural markets only have EDGE cellular networks when many recruiting technologies (e.g., video interviewing) may need a minimum of 4G telephony.
  • Much of the application and interviewing process must be cellular powered as cellphone technology is more likely to be used by candidates.
  • Hiring in rural markets is traditionally a word-of-mouth or relationship effort. You shouldn’t expect to find scores of quality candidates on an internet job board as geography and lower population density dramatically limit the potential labor pool.
  • Rural businesses often must compete with firms like Walmart for available personnel. One big local employer can scoop up much of the available workforce within 10-30 miles.
  • Some potential workers have material scheduling issues. For example, some great job candidates periodically need time off for seasonal farming efforts.

Many retailers have a hierarchical structure wherein employment decisions aren’t made by the local store manager. Instead, a zone/district/region/area manager makes these decisions. But, to do so, this person must travel, sometimes a hundred miles to a store to meet these candidates.

As expected, this extended travel time creates a time constraint that adds delays and frustration to the recruiting process.  In a densely populated urban market, a district manager or hiring manager could get around to 2-3 stores every day to help review candidates. In remote areas, that visit might occur once a week (or less). Delays in hiring decisions can cause good candidates to abandon their employment search and go with another, more time-conscious, employer.

Pilot Flying J

That’s the backdrop against which Pilot Flying J found itself implementing tech from SmartRecruiters.

Pilot Flying J stores are a fixture on major US and Canadian highways. According to a Wikipedia posting:

Currently, Pilot Flying J is the largest purveyor of over-the-road diesel fuel in the United States. Pilot Flying J also is known as the largest Travel Center chain in the country with over 750 locations under the Pilot, Flying J, & Mr. Fuel brands. Pilot Flying J is also the third largest franchiser of quick service restaurants in the nation, offering one to three different concepts at each location, making it the largest franchisee of Subway in the world with over 200 locations.

Many Pilot Flying J locations are located at major highway intersections with most generally away from major population centers. Their stores not only sell fuel to truckers and automobile drivers but they also sell a number of foodstuffs, hot foods, etc.  These stations are also multi-faceted and sizeable. They need staff to assist truck refuelling, counter sales, truck scale operations, etc. Some personnel work in the co-located fast-food stores. People are needed to clean their washrooms, maintain the supplies at the pumps, and more. In addition, these stores run 24/7 operations and as such need a large number of personnel and they need them round the clock. And as noted above, acquiring staffing for these operations can be quite difficult in remote/rural areas.

Business challenge

Like many firms, Pilot saw a pronounced drop in customer counts early in 2021. In fact, they experienced a 60% reduction in the December 2020 through February 2021 timeframe compared to other years’ experience. But management felt that would change.

According to Yvette Fragile, Talent Acquisition Operations and Recruitment Manager of Pilot Flying J, senior management at the firm did a lot of planning/forecasting throughout the pandemic. Early this year, they concluded that customer visits would materially pick up during the coming summer. Their hypothesis was based on the seasonal summer increase in automobile travel they observe annually and because of the reopening of the economy as vaccine availability grew.

To that end, Pilot management anticipated a need to hire an additional 10,000 new employees between May 1 through July 31 this year. In a normal summer travel season, they would hire 5,000 people.

Pilot’s old methods and systems were not going to carry the day. The firm needed new ways to hire and new tools to enable this. This realization triggered the need to change some recruiting practices, accompanied by a decision to implement new software from SmartRecruiters.

Implementing SmartRecruiters

Like many firms of this size, Pilot has a number of back-office systems including a core HRMS and its own collection of talent acquisition tools and services. Their old recruiting technology was a legacy homegrown solution. Pilot had already started the implementation of SmartRecruiters when the pandemic hit. Making the old systems and processes work in the vaccine economy would have been tough. According to Fragile, the “pandemic exacerbated matters”.

She and others at Pilot also believed that they needed to fix employee engagement and onboarding at same time as upgrading its recruiting technology. In other words, they needed better hiring AND retention solutions.  If these areas weren’t addressed, then churn would occur and the 10,000-person goal would be inadequate.

Pilot implemented SmartRecruiters tech virtually and had it live in a very short timeframe. Pilot’s experience with SmartRecruiters went well. The SmartRecruiters software got candidates prescreened and scheduled interviews almost immediately.  This was a key goal for the project as any delay that candidates encountered (eg: waiting for an in-person interview) could cost them getting the candidate.

Much of the candidate’s interaction was handled via a smartphone. SmartRecruiters software was able to plug’n’play with Pilot’s other HR applications.  Specific to SmartRecruiters, Pilot used the following modules:

  • Text Recruiting
  • AI Recruiting
  • Job Distribution
  • Candidate Relationship Marketing
  • Job Advertising
  • Applicant Tracking

Pilot has a specific approach to getting and retaining talent. The firm likes its local store managers to talk to high schoolers who may be graduating soon. If they can catch them then, Pilot has a chance of scooping them up before another employer does. Second, Pilot has one particularly attractive benefit: access to health insurance for only $10/week.

As to how Pilot fixed its onboarding and engagement challenges, Fragile explained:

We made the process much more mobile-friendly and shifted some of the paperwork prior to the first day, which saves time on a new Team Member’s first day in the store.

To get better results, process changes took place, including, as Fragile put it:

Working to give our managers more time to spend with new hires versus focusing only on paperwork tasks.

Text message support for jobseekers was deemed to be an important capability, she added:

Text messaging was definitely important in terms of contacting hourly applicants. Most utilize their mobile phone exclusively. Text messages have a 98% open rate while emails have a 22% open rate. Most also do not answer phone calls nor have voice mail set-up. Text is the preferred method of communication in the hourly hiring segment.


Because recruiting has been such a hot button item for firms during this pandemic, SmartRecruiters revenues grew by 50% in the last year. Investors like SmartRecruiters, too. In July, the company raised $110 Million in venture monies at a $1.5 billion valuation.

SmartRecruiters technology can help fill an ATS with net-new candidates and also work within a company’s existing HRMS tools to identify internal candidates for open positions. CEO and Founder Jerome Ternynck believes it is important to merge recruiting with candidate relationship management and collaboration software while better supporting operations managers.

Ternynck argues that even if firms change the way they identify, cultivate and hire external jobseekers, companies have a lot of work to do to better optimize the existing talent within a firm. The limited view of recruiting (ie: external hire focus) needs correcting. It needs to tap into alumni, people with different backgrounds (but comparable skills), etc. And, if recruiting is solving the talent acquisition problem of late, then better matching of existing workers to new career opportunities within the firm will go a long way to helping stem the Great Resignation. To that end, Ternynck believes some re-wiring of the customer is needed today.

SmartRecruiters is continuing to enhance its existing modules with a greater focus on the candidate (not just recruiter) side of things. A “smarter” onboarding module may be in the offing, too. Ternynck also doesn’t see the old labor market coming back. The market changed and so did the power balance between employers and employees, with Ternynck seeing “a long-term shift in power to jobseekers.

My take

I’ve known Ternynck for many years. He is always passionate about recruiting. I suspect that’s his favorite thing to talk about. To wit, he wrote a book on the subject “Hiring Success: How Visionary CEOs Compete for the Best Talent”. It’s available on Amazon.

In a way, I wish more firms had a giant HR problem to solve in a very short time. That kind of potential, looming crisis is what often acts to drive significant and meaningful transformational (not incremental) change. This use case exemplar isn’t about hiring a few more people than Pilot Flying J normally does each summer. The company needed twice its normal new-hire count, hire them in a collapsed timeframe, and, do so under challenging circumstances.

The proof of the transformation is that the new software, onboarding and other changes caused the recruiting to actually beat the deadline by two weeks.

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