By MARTY LEVINE
Pitt has faced some of the same supply chain difficulties that have hit most universities across the country since COVID-19 arrived, but from the beginning, Pitt has acquired new or filled existing storage space with a backlog of supplies, say University staffers and contractors in charge of student food service, campus stores and student housing.
Pitt also has faced some labor shortages, from staffers to student workers, but is maintaining services despite them.
To find solutions, Pitt has been turning increasingly to local suppliers, while taking advantage of connections nationwide to other institutions facing the same predicament.
Forks, fiber plates and … broccoli shortages?
“How can there just be no forks available in the country?” marveled Quintin Eason, in charge of Pitt’s student food service as vice president of operations with Chartwells, Pitt’s contractor, speaking at the end of last semester. “We’ve been scratching our heads here. It’s just been wild. We’re waiting on 20,000 spoons, forks and knives (metal silverware). There has been permanent out-of-store shortages that we haven’t been able to recover from.
“It’s the institutional, bulk packs … where the struggle is,” he added. If you just want a few forks for your home, you can probably find them at Target, “but we would wipe them out.
“It’s a constant battle between supply and demand,” he said. “We have gone to Sam’s Club. They put limits on what we can have. The struggle is daily.”
So far, he said, the solution has been to shift existing supplies among different Pitt locations, as needed. And where a compostable item was once available, a disposable item may have to do.
As one category of supply becomes more available, another one gets tough to find, he said. The takeout food market blew up at the beginning of the pandemic, which created temporary shortages in to-go containers, but that eased when some restaurants opened back up. Then last September, into October, chicken tenders and the type of ground beef used in Chartwells’ meals, for one, suddenly got scarce.
“We’d order 50 cases of broccoli, we’d get 10,” Eason said.
Some food items can still be in short supply and create the need for quick substitutions, while paper goods are a little easier to find, he reported. “In some of our market spaces … some of the common items that you think would be available just are not.”
Chartwells is the largest commercial food service provider in the United States, and Eason’s weekly calls with other Chartwell-handled universities around the country reveal the same thing is happening everywhere. But the calls also can lead to suggestions and help, he said.
This summer, Pitt rented several dry-stock trailers for Chartwells and approved Chartwells’ purchase of pallets of certain nonperishable supplies ahead of time.
“We were just stocking those trailers up,” Eason said, pointing also to Chartwells’ buying power, company-wide, that helps them garner substitutions, “so that there is no real interruptions. Maybe your favorite (food) is not in today, so maybe we have something for you that’s equally good or better.
“I’m fairly impressed with the level of understanding … of the students,” he added, saying he has seen only a “smattering of complaints. We’ve appreciated the student understanding of the situation. They’ve been very supportive of the team.”
Chartwells’ team at Pitt consists of 646 full- and part-time workers, employed directly by Chartwells (although about 50 of them also have Pitt jobs, he said). They range from food service workers at the frontline (such as checkout positions) to those who prepare food, those putting away stock, and employees who do Pitt’s catering.
“We’re having a tough time finding replacements” for workers, and finding new applicants as well, he said in December. Unlike some extreme examples nationwide where universities have asked for volunteer help from students, Chartwells has not had to resort to such measures. But Eason said they are down 22 percent from the usual workforce. “We’ve done a nice job of retention,” he explained, by offering bonuses and other incentives, but “the job pool has dried up completely. There’s nobody out there looking for work.
“Our teams have worked incredibly hard,” he concluded. “They’ve had to deal with a lot of changes, a lot of uncertainties. It’s been very stressful” — but services are being maintained.
Going local with the Pitt brand
The toughest item to keep on the shelves of Pitt stores has been Pitt-branded clothing, but that’s created a silver lining: the chance to turn more often to local suppliers, said Megan Moser.
Moser is merchandise manager of the University Store on Fifth Avenue (which sells school supplies, tech, books and Pitt souvenirs), Maggie and Stella’s next door (for gift items) and the two Pitt gear stores — one on Forbes Avenue and the other in the Petersen Events Center.
Generally, merchandise with the Pitt logo, especially Pitt apparel, has been produced overseas. Seeing the difficulty in keeping those items flowing here, Moser said her team, at the beginning of the summer, gave themselves a one-year goal to expand existing partnerships with local vendors and to find new ones. They’ve already achieved that goal, she said.
“Certainly, we’ve had late deliveries” and have run out of items or put things on back order, Moser said. “This semester, we’ve been really prepared for those” situations, buying course materials such as lab coats and goggles ahead of time and stocking them in the basement of the Fifth Avenue outlet.
The 75 to 90 store employees are about evenly divided between staffers and student workers, and “you certainly had challenges” in bringing students to campus jobs over the past two years — particularly when the University has mandated delays in arrivals, sheltering in place and other strictures. “But that is something we’re used to” in general, she said, since student workers are always coming and going, depending on their semester schedules and, of course, graduation.
Moser said “the pool has been exceedingly great” among staff job candidates and the stores have recently hired several management positions.
“The best thing about our university retailing market,” she said, is that “it is a very open and sharing community.” She regularly consults other schools about their struggles and solutions through the Independent Collegiate Bookstore Association.
Early action, steady work
“We’ve been fortunate probably more than most” in keeping up with supplies and maintaining the labor force to clean and service student housing, said Matthew Sterne, vice chancellor for Business Services in the Office of Business and Auxiliary Services.
Pitt has kept three months inventory of cleaning, maintenance and repair supplies on hand for its operating engineers, maintenance mechanics, housekeepers and building superintendents to handle 7,800 student beds in 26 buildings (not including one hotel this year).
“That’s allowed us to weather any shorter term supply challenges,” Sterne said.
When extra cleaning efforts kicked in at the beginning of the pandemic, “we added services at that time and we’ve been able to maintain them,” he said. His department has options to find additional storage if Pitt would need to have four months of supplies on hand, he added. “There was forethought to really make sure that, given the broad things that could happen, our students wouldn’t be impacted.
“I think the team deserves a lot of credit,” Sterne said. “Our housekeepers … our engineers are here day to day, looking after the students, making it happen … and I’m grateful for the work that we do.”
Marty Levine is a staff writer for the University Times. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-758-4859.
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