© Marina Zlochin | adobestock

Prior to the outbreak of COVID-19 in the US, the job market had been growing with an increase of 6.7 million jobs, nearly a half million of which were in manufacturing. That, according to FactCheck.org, took the unemployment rate, which had been below the historical norm, to its lowest rate in half a century, making it difficult for food processing facilities to fill jobs in both food science/management positions and on-floor skilled/low-skilled workers. Regardless of what post-COVID-19 looks like, food production will continue to be an essential industry in need of workers.

THE LABOR SHORTAGE. For the food industry, particularly those in food safety, there is not only an increase in jobs, there is a shortage of workers. “As older workers head toward retirement, the field is seeing a lack of interest among younger workers,” said AIB International Vice President of Operations-America Stephanie Lopez. “There is a general lack of interest in manufacturing and a lack of awareness among college students and recent graduates about careers in food safety.”

With this lack of awareness and interest comes a shortage of those with the skill sets required for food safety and quality positions — both in management and on the floor. “We’re experiencing quite bit of shortage where training is required, and new ideas are being brought forward,” said HW Staffing Solutions COO Henry Kiel. “The talent pool has shrunk for both skilled and unskilled workers.”

Also having an impact is the challenge that similar companies are competing for the same labor force, Kiel said, so they are looking for ways to market themselves to attract this high-demand workforce. “Companies are looking at ways to hire the right people for the long-haul so they have a sustainable workforce.”

Insight Food Safety Consulting Senior Food Scientist Bruce Ferree has worked with companies dealing with worker shortages. However, he said, “It is because of a shortage of qualified and interested workers — mostly on the off shifts. While people do want to work, they are not interested in working swing or graveyard shifts for long periods of time. Thus, turnover is a problem for these companies.”

Additionally, with skilled workers (such as electrical and mechanical repairpersons) in short supply, once found, they are hard to keep, he said. “I believe most people in America today want to work Monday through Friday eight-to-five. The manufacturing and service industries will have the hardest time finding and keeping good employees in this type of market.”

“Food manufacturing is difficult work,” added Lillemo & Associates Principal Consultant Jan Lillemo. “Often people are disillusioned after working for a while.”

WHAT IS BEING DONE. Both Lillemo and Lawrence and Associates President Roger Lawrence are seeing companies use temporary workers to fill vacant roles. “Temporary agencies and temporary positions are being used to a greater degree to fill the day-to-day demand for production workers,” Lawrence said.

A similar process is being used by some companies needing to fill management positions. As explained by Lopez, “Personnel changes, sudden growth, or new market trends can impact manufacturing operations and the demands on their team.” When this occurs and a manufacturer suddenly needs to fill a shortage or gain additional expertise, such as that of a sanitarian, food safety manager, or quality assurance manager, the company can look to outside consultants or agencies for the temporary assistance of a technical expert who is well-versed at overseeing management, closures, and high-risk issues.

Lillemo agreed that temp-to-hire is a good option, also recommending employee referrals. For non-manufacturing positions, she said, recruiters can be a big help. 

To weed out potential short-term employees, some companies are working to improve their hiring processes, through improved interviewing, background checks, etc., But, Ferree said, there is no exact science on how to do this. So many are expanding their employee markets to attract potential employees from a wider geographic area. “I have heard of employers recruiting nationwide to attract some of those good electrical/mechanical repairmen and women. This need seems to be the most difficult to fill — knowledgeable, hard-working repair team members who fit into the culture of the individual plants.”

Additionally, Ferree said, “Some companies have increased wages for employees they want to keep. Others are on the hire/fire/replace cycle.”

Kiel and HW Staffing Solutions President Ed Walsh have seen companies with which they are working implementing one or more of the following strategies:

  1. Increased focus on temp-to-hire programs through an employee staffing firm. Those identified as trainable to the company’s operations and culture can be hired into an apprentice or training program, enabling a trial period for both the employee and company, as well as a growth opportunity for the employee.
  2. Direct hires of skilled workers, with training and a career path for longevity.
  3. Outsourcing, particularly when flex staff is needed. In such cases, the food facility would have a plant-based crew supplemented by flex workers managed by the staffing agency. This not only helps fill temporary needs, it enables the facility to evaluate the talent and identify those it would like to set on a career path or put to a temp-to-hire program.
  4. Developing relationships with schools, through an employment firm or directly with the school, to provide early identification of those with transferable skills. Helping prepare the young workforce for such jobs also helps a company with worker longevity.

ATTRACTING EMPLOYEES. “To attract the next generation of food safety professionals, businesses need to prioritize their commitment to a food safety culture,” Lopez said. By doing so, manufacturers can successfully attract, retain, and develop the next generation.

“As younger workers enter the workforce, they need more than a single training course to ensure the safe production of food,” she explained. “By developing a culture that prioritizes food safety and ongoing training, manufacturers will support the growth and development of the next generation, while ensuring the production of safe food.” This can be done internally or through online training, seminars, and private training that help employees at all levels understand the relationship between their behaviors and food safety, enabling them to successfully protect food safety in their role.

“When they do enter into the field, young professionals don’t always receive the support they need to be confident in their roles and understanding of food safety,” Lopez said. To ensure their success, it’s critical that entry level professionals receive the training and support they need.

To help counter issues caused by lack of interest in off-hours shifts, some facilities are modifying the plant schedule, Ferree said. He gave the example of a plant which changed sanitation from graveyard to day shift. “Sanitation had been completed by the most junior staff in the plant,” he said. “Bringing it to day shift put experienced staff in charge of this necessary and undeniably important task.” The change resulted in decreased turnover; a reduction in sanitation hours — providing an additional two hours of production time; and improved production training to the newest employees such that they felt engaged with the company and developed the desire to stay.

Reworking the plant schedule from day- and swing-shift production and graveyard-shift sanitation to swing- and graveyard-shift production and day-shift sanitation took a complete mind shift for the entire plant — workers and leaders. Implementing the new system (for which the day shift winds down production, cleans, then starts up production) had its challenges, particularly as the shift leaders had to acclimate to the new responsibilities. As such, the company realized it should have done more preparation, or overlapped leaders during implementation. However, overall, the change was a win for productivity, and it reduced turnover and increased sense of ownership on the graveyard shift.

To keep any particular position from always being “on graveyard,” some facilities also rotate shifts. Having worked in aseptic production, Ferree said, production can run for 72 hours or more before cleaning is mandated. So cleaning and production can fall on any shift, “meaning that all employees must know production as well as sanitation,” he said. “For us, it meant additional training time before a new employee was allowed to work on their own.” It also was difficult, though, to be the sanitation leaders because they had to have a very flexible schedule.

RETAINING WORKERS. Once you’ve attracted the right fit to your company, it is critical to further enact practices and procedures to retain your valued employees. Following are a few key guidelines for retention:

  • Hire Smart. “The first rule of good management is to ‘Hire Smart.’ Finding the right employee is more important than finding employees,” Ferree said. Thus, he advised that companies not hire those who are not a good fit; rather, keep looking until you find the right person. And when you do — be prepared to pay them a wage or salary and benefits that will help keep them with you.
  • Be Creative. As seen by the plant that adjusted the production schedule, there are times when an adjustment to normal business is a way to keep good people while bringing new people into the culture.
  • Train. “I highly recommend offering OJT (on-the-job training) which I truly believe helps reduce stress in not filling certain jobs that require food safety, equipment training, etc.,” Henry said.
  • Engage Workers. Have a good onboarding program; offer competitive wages and benefits; provide training and retraining; host employee events; ensure your company is diverse and multi-cultural; implement awards and recognitions; provide opportunities for growth and focused career paths; ensure there is work/life balance; and talk with — and listen to — employees.
  • Look in the Mirror. “Reputation management is a crucial part of hiring and retaining,” Walsh said. People don’t want to work for some companies because of the way the employees are treated.

“Though the majority of food recalls are related to a lack of established Good Manufacturing Practices, many are the result of ineffective implementation by companies and workers, and could be a byproduct of staffing shortages.” Lopez said. “A food safety culture that values training and establishes high standards is particularly valuable for manufacturers navigating the industry’s generational shift, as this model ensures new hires have clearly defined expectations and learning opportunities from day one. This cultural foundation then positively impacts manufacturers’ ability to effectively implement GMPs.”

The author is Editor of QA magazine. She can be reached at llupo@gie.net.