The Countdown Is on at Wynn Las Vegas

By Jennifer Berkshire

Dec. 6, 2004

When Arte Nathan went looking for employees for a new Las Vegas hotel and casino, he did what any employer might do: He took out an ad in the local paper. The single full-page ad ran on the cover of the classifieds and cost $8,800. Four months later, Nathan, the chief human resources officer for Wynn Las Vegas, has received more than 100,000 applications. “Not a bad return,” he says. Three smaller ads followed, along with a full-page community thank-you on January 2.

    The ad was the easy part. Before developer Steve Wynn’s $2.5 billion destination resort can open its doors, Nathan must oversee the massive enterprise of identifying, interviewing, hiring and training more than 9,000 poker dealers, housekeepers and cocktail servers.

    With about two months to go before opening day, the monumental effort is nearing completion. Since January, Nathan and his team have been interviewing an average of 550 people a day, and finished on February 12. They’ve hired1,200 people so far and have made tentative hiring decisions for 8,400 more. “We’re almost done,” Nathan says.

The online edge
    Hiring so many workers in such a short period of time may sound overwhelming. But Nathan, who has been helping Wynn open resorts since 1983, believes that he has an edge: an online system that he helped design, combining what he terms “extraordinary technology” with his own years of human resources know-how.

    Job seekers who log on to can apply for positions and track their progress online. Managers can access the system anywhere and at any time to watch the hiring process as it happens. They can see how many people have applied to be poker dealers, for example, and how much experience those would-be dealers have. They can even sort applicants by the specific casinos they’ve worked for.

    Nathan collaborated with Recruitmax, a Jacksonville, Florida, recruiting software maker, to design a system that would address the unique problems and demands posed by large-scale hiring. Nathan says that he looked at 18 different systems before settling on Recruitmax. “We discussed our processes with all of the vendors, and they were the only ones who both understood what we were describing and were willing to build a system that met our needs,” Nathan says. He estimates that the software is worth $2 million, but Nathan and his team purchased it at a deep discount because they “provided the intellectual capital to design and test it.”

    Nathan had complete faith in his new online employment center, which opened for business at midnight October 31. But he still had some doubts about whether the pool of applicants he was targeting would have the computer skills–or even the Internet access–necessary to complete job applications online.

    “I was concerned that there would be some percentage who either didn’t have access to a computer or didn’t speak English,” Nathan says, “so we set up other ways for applicants to communicate with us. If you wanted, you could make an appointment to come in.”

    There’s even a call center staffed by 25 workers, mostly students from the nearby University of Nevada, Las Vegas, who speak eight languages including English, Spanish, Korean and Tagalog.

    Of the 97,000 people Nathan has heard from so far, however, about 94 percent have submitted their applications electronically. Less than 10 percent have visited the Wynn employment center to fill out an application. And nearly 80 percent of the applicants have e-mail addresses, a number that Nathan says cuts across the demographics of the people applying for jobs.

    The online application process is customized for people coming from the hospitality industry–specifically, the myriad hotels and casinos that line the Strip. Have experience dealing craps at a local casino? The application provides a pull-down menu of Sin City’s top resorts to choose from.

    “There was thought behind this,” Nathan says. “We wanted to make the process of applying for jobs as effortless as possible. And we wanted to attract people who’d worked on the Strip at hotels of a certain size.”

The ratings game
    The online job search is also intended to make the process of weeding through tens of thousands of applicants easier for Wynn’s managers, who oversee such key resort departments as guest services and dining.

    Based on their responses to queries about where they’ve worked and for how long, every would-be Wynn employee is assigned a rated value. Only those who score above the designated cutoff number are invited in for an interview. And while technology is key in the beginning stages of the hiring process, in the end it’s humans who make the call about who will be asked to work at Wynn Las Vegas. “Software is just a tool, but something like this requires a great deal of human intervention,” Nathan says.

    The style that Nathan has honed over the past 15 years depends in large part on blending the new with the old, the cutting-edge with the tried-and-true. After all, when the human resources chief sought to reach tens of thousands of Nevadans, his chosen method wasn’t e-mail or text messaging but that relatively archaic newspaper ad.

    And for all the emphasis on computerized scoring and rated value, Nathan often turns to a far more traditional tool when it comes to making hiring decisions: his individual knowledge of the people applying for jobs. Of the applications received thus far, he notes, the vast majority have come from within Las Vegas. “Not surprisingly, I know many of the folks who’ve applied. The ranking is only part of it.”

Plunder or be plundered
    Nathan makes no secret of the fact that he’s trying to lure the Strip’s best cocktail servers, baccarat dealers and massage therapists to work at Wynn Las Vegas. In fact, rumor has it that Nathan and his representatives aren’t exactly favored guests of rival casinos these days, so heated is the competition for quality labor. For his part, Nathan dismisses such speculation, saying simply that “it’s the reality of Las Vegas. Somebody is going to open a place, and we’ve all been the victim or the pirates.”

    To appeal to the cream of the service industry here, though, Nathan and Wynn have to do more than offer a smart online application; they also have to promise–and provide–premium wages and working conditions.

    “Steve Wynn is known as an employer who treats his workers well and gives them the ability to move up,” says D. Taylor, secretary treasurer of Culinary Workers Union Local 226, the union that represents more than 50,000 service workers in Las Vegas hotels and casinos.

    While Wynn Las Vegas is not yet a unionized facility, the union has a card-check agreement with Steve Wynn, granting workers union representation if a majority of them sign cards. “Wynn has a great reputation for his commitment for training, and we share that,” Taylor says. “You can move from kitchen worker to gourmet food server here. That’s a big deal.”

    Since January 3, Wynn’s managers have been doing their hundreds of daily interviews at the Wynn Employment Center. Home to every aspect of the hiring process, the state-of-the-art center can seem as busy as the resort the applicants hope to staff. “We’ve used the facility for multiple purposes throughout this process,” he says.

    Some come for job interviews. Those seeking “performance” jobs such as card dealer or masseuse must also audition for their positions. Applicants who have made it past the first interview are there for follow-up sessions or drug tests. And the lucky ones who have effectively survived every hurdle of the hiring process come to the center to receive a job offer.

    Once job offers have been extended and accepted, the real fun begins: training all of those people for up to three weeks. “This is the unbelievable process,” Nathan says. “We have to certify all 9,000 people in up to 15 tasks each. That’s 145,000 certifications.”

Training for “dummies”
    To make sure that Wynn’s new employees are familiar with the operating procedures of their new departments, and understand every aspect of the jobs for which they’ve been hired, Nathan and his team will rely on reams of paper, also known as employee training guides. These how-to guides break down key positions into as many as 20 tasks, Nathan says. They explain the task, why it’s done, how to do it, and what supervisors look for when evaluating employees.

    Nathan also thinks he has solved the problem of people not reading the employee handbook. Wynn’s comes in format of the “Dummies” books. Nathan hopes this will get employees to actually read the document.

    Beginning in April, the new employees will receive hands-on training from 550 trainers, part of an intensive 13-day crash course in hospitality education. Then, in the days before the resort opens its doors, the new staff will perform their roles, half playing the parts of employees, the other acting as guests, just to make sure that they have them down.

    The goal of this concentrated training course is simple: When Wynn Las Vegas opens at end of April, the surroundings will be brand new, but Nathan wants the employees to be so smooth and capable that it will seem to guests as though the resort has been open for months.

    “That’s how it will feel when they walk in,” he says.

Workforce Management, March 2005, pp. 65-67Subscribe Now!

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