2005 Annual Manufacturing Trends Survey

Food safety is still everyone's top concern, but recruiting workers to make our food is a growing worry.

By Dave Fusaro, Editor in Chief

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Just a month after the outgoing secretary of Health and Human Services wondered aloud "why the terrorists have not attacked our food supply because it is so easy to do," respondents to our fourth annual Manufacturing Trends Survey identified food safety as their No. 1 concern for the new year.

If a former Bush cabinet member (Tommy Thompson) is that concerned, it's no surprise the security of our food supply has been paramount in all four surveys we've conducted. But when asked for additional comments or concerns, not a single respondent elaborated on food safety. The issue has the potential for creating the biggest tragedy since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 … or (hopefully) as much of a non-story as the terrorist attacks in Iraq on that country's recent election day.

On the other hand, respondents to our survey also were gearing up for what should be a very busy year. Seventy percent anticipated production increases of at least 5 percent, nearly half of them projecting ramp-ups of more than 10 percent. Only 3 percent predicted production cutbacks.

Fifty-nine percent of respondents ranked food safety as their top manufacturing concern for 2005. Eighty-five percent said they are taking additional steps this year to ensure food safety, including equipment upgrades and certification, better control of plant GMPs (good manufacturing practices), increasing use of food safety audits, auditing the plant's training, tighter plant security and more use of metal detection, X-ray and vision systems. Several said they were upgrading hazards analysis and critical control points (HACCP) programs.

An Illinois snack food manufacturer just hired a "Food Safety Manager to review company-wide programs." Another manufacturing exec said his firm would undertake "more monitoring of both inbound ingredients and outbound product as well as improved monitoring of all production processes."

"We are taking bioterrorism much more seriously and are going through some training," wrote a man at a Los Angeles bakery.

METHODOLOGY

Our fourth annual Manufacturing Trends Survey was an e-mail survey taken during the month of January. There were 268 respondents in the following food categories: bakery (14 percent), beverages (11 percent), confectionery (4 percent), dairy (7 percent), fruits and vegetables (7 percent), frozen products (8 percent), further-processed foods and specialties (25 percent), meats and poultry (15 percent), snack foods (5 percent) and wellness foods (4 percent).
With all the concern over food safety, there's a drop-off to concern No. 2. Labor issues (including recruiting, training and even reducing headcount) garnered 28 percent of the vote. Despite the big disparity, labor issues gained six points from last year's survey and food safety dropped four points. Only 1.9 percent of respondents ranked labor as their least important concern, about the same as those who had minimal concern for food safety (1.5 percent).

In a weighted-tally system (giving decreasing points for second-, third- and other placements), labor was a much closer second (1,175 points versus food safety's 1,347 points), and automation was the only other issue to score more than 1,000 points. Other concerns are in the accompanying graphic. To access the PDF-formatted graphic, click the "Download Now" button at the end of this article.

Labor pains

While labor concerns meant different things to different respondents, there did seem to be a growing fear that finding and keeping quality of workers â€" at a price the traditionally stingy food industry can afford â€" was nearing the crisis point.

"You touched on competent technician availability â€" it gets tougher every year," wrote a plant official at a North Carolina meat and poultry plant. "We as an industry need to improve our recruiting in technical colleges for line technicians."

"It's getting harder to find the kind of people we want to work for us," Blake Blackburn of Latin American Ingredients, Fairland, Okla., said in a follow-up interview. In addition to ingredients, his company makes bakery premixes and is a contract food manufacturer. "When you do find them, it's harder to train them because of the level of technology we now use and the food regulations. And once you do train them, it's harder to keep them."

That last comment, he said, referred to trained workers moving to bigger-name food processors in Joplin, Mo. (30-40 minutes away), which has a number of larger food plants. "Labor really is our No. 1 concern right now," he added.

There's good reason to be concerned. Labor is by far the biggest factor in food costs, according to a number of studies, and more than half of food industry employees are production workers, according to a 2002 report from the U.S. Dept. of Labor/Bureau of Labor Statistics.

"The food industries in New Jersey and elsewhere are facing mounting problems in the workforce arena," says a report from the Food Policy Institute at Rutgers University, New Brunswick, N.J. The institute's board of directors has designated labor problems as the most pressing issue facing the food industry.

"Indeed, there is consensus among industry executives that the food system is facing a growing labor crisis in terms of their ability to recruit and retain qualified workers," the Food Policy Institute report continues. "Food industry executives frequently cite concerns about the poor work readiness skills and weak work ethics among rising workforce entrants. Tardiness, lack of reliability and poor personal presentation are among the complaints levied by managers. Similarly, language and literacy barriers are obstacles faced in many of the lower-skill job classes."

"Labor certainly is our biggest cost," noted Billy Yeary, plant manager at Prime Pak Foods in Gainesville, Ga., which makes chicken, beef and pork patties. While he admits his workforce has been pretty stable, "Competition in this business makes us always look for less expensive ways to manufacture. Our process is very labor-intensive. So we need to find efficiencies, and often that means automation."

In adjoining Alabama, the problem is finding "barely acceptable" employees who will even show up for work consistently, according to the general manager of a bottling company. "This area has never put a value on education, and it shows in the kinds of employees we see. Most don't really want to work. Every morning on my way in, I have heartburn because I know somebody's either not done what they're supposed to be doing or they won't even show up for work today … or a good one will quit."

Like Blackburn's experience, this food executive finds his better employees being pirated by other companies; but in this case, they are nearby defense contractors who can afford to pay more because of the war in Iraq. "They've got the money now," he said.

His comments were echoed in upstate New York. "We pay on a par with other food processors, and most of us are not unionized," said a manager at a frozen food company. "But this is an older industrial area, and the other industries that are left here are unionized and pay more."

Of course, unions are a double-edged sword. "We have some good skilled people because we're unionized and we pay well. The new hires we get, for instance, are top-notch," said a manager at a California beverage processor. "But we're the only union facility [in our niche], so that puts us at a disadvantage because of our labor costs. We also have higher benefits costs and carry a significantly greater headcount than a comparable nonunion plant."

He also noted California's "liberal" Family Medical Leave Act makes it too easy for employees to take time off. When we contacted him, the manager was preparing for a strike he felt was likely.

Other issues

Automation has come in third every year of this survey, this year at 20 percent, down 2 percentage points from last year. For the first time, respondents said their production sections were more automated than their packaging sections (though only by 1.5 percent), with the entire plant, entire production line and logistics/warehousing all coming in at about 10.5 percent. Sixty-five percent are automating with programmable logic controllers, nearly double the next closest answer: custom software.

Although plant security and energy issues came in next with 17 and 16 percent of the "most important issue" votes, respectively, those and logistics and engineering issues all had similar aggregate scores. Only consolidation challenges came in far behind the pack.

Thirty-eight percent said they are conducting energy audits.

Allergens are an annual concern. "With the new legislation, allergen concerns look like they will be our big concern for the year," wrote one respondent. "We are focusing this year on allergens through changeover procedures, sanitation, and production sequencing," wrote a plant executive at a California processor.

To access the PDF-formatted graphic for this article, click the "Download Now" button below.
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