If the food industry was Sally Field, feedback from Food Processing’s 8th annual Salary & Job Satisfaction Survey would make it blush and say, “You like me, you really like me.”
Many and varied factors contribute to the good vibes: challenging work, compatible colleagues and managers, a stable and growing company and feeling appreciated, to name a few. Among the hundreds of survey participants who provided specific praises, one long-time (36-plus years with the same firm) executive summarized his satisfaction by writing, “Job security, pay and benefits, outstanding work environment, strong corporate financials and management.”
Some rank-and-file workers were among the 750 food industry professionals who participated in this year’s online survey, but for the most part they were drawn from skilled positions such as corporate management, engineering, R&D and quality assurance. These professionals reported an average salary increase of 3.16 percent over the prior year, up from last year’s 2.65 percent gain and the biggest boost since the Great Recession. They also averaged 3.62 on the 5-point job satisfaction index, up from 3.57. A sour note was the increase in the proportion of people who are more concerned about job security.
We made some key changes this year in the way salaries are reported, so we don't want to call this year's $97,303 "average" salary a decline from last year's $103,988. That 3.16 percent increase in the previous paragraph was the aggregate this year's respondents reported for themselves.
Year-to-year comparisons of average compensation packages can be a bit tricky, inasmuch as the respondent pool shifts. Plus, this year we changed the survey to allow people to write in their exact salary, which should increase precision. As a result, this year’s average salary and bonus package of $97,303 is probably more reflective of actual industry pay for these jobs than last year’s $103,988 because half of this year’s pool provided an actual dollar amount instead of indicating a salary range. If people at the income extremes are excluded, the average salary was $96,678. Median compensation was $85,000.
“Challenging work” was the most frequently used phrase of respondents who took the time to comment on their job satisfaction, with “good/great company” close behind. Most comments were specific to the individual’s situation. “Part of my satisfaction results from the fact that I will be retiring in nine months,” one industry veteran wrote. “I should add, however, that most of my 32 years with this company have been satisfying.”
Long, satisfying careers in the food industry are not unusual: One-third of survey participants has logged 26 years or more in the industry. Overall, 11 percent has 26-plus years tenure at their current company, a testimony to stability. “I work for a great company that has treated me and my family very well,” one professional unabashedly wrote. The sentiment is echoed by another, who commented, “The company really makes me feel wanted. I will retire here.” That product development specialist spent more than 30 years in the wilderness before finding his nirvana.
Not everybody is in love with their job, and although half as many voiced gripes compared to praise, they have a litany of complaints. “Lack of” prefaces beefs that include appreciation, respect, opportunity and challenge. Stress, over-work, lack of acknowledgement and poor management compete with inadequate pay among disaffected professionals. “Management refuses to communicate with workers in a timely manner,” a maintenance professional critiqued. “Large amount of employee turnover because of increased workloads without any support from management.”
Erosion of both pay and benefits is a sore spot for some. “No raise in six years,” one wrote, and another chimed in, “Pay rate is low, medical and dental are expensive and don’t offer the best coverage with high co-pays and deductibles, only 10 days PTO.”
The general pay raises in recent years have yet to make up the difference from pay cuts many experienced in 2009-2010. “The cost of most things has risen to the point where I seriously need to make more money just to make ends meet,” a sales and marketing staffer wrote. “I really love my job, but it may be time to move on.”
Showdown at Gender Gap
A disproportionate number of negative comments came from female staffers, a troubling sign for an industry that is skewing to the distaff side. Men dominate the older demographics, but the ratio of women increases in each age group as they grow younger. Among respondents 29 and younger, there’s an even split between the genders. Women are taking hard-to-fill slots in engineering, plant operations and other areas, and retaining their services will be critical in the years ahead.
Two of five people expressing dissatisfaction were women, and salary issues were far and away the most common complaint. Not only does the gender pay gap identified in every previous Salary and Job Satisfaction survey persist, it appears to be widening: While female respondents last year earned 75.4 cents for every dollar that male respondents earned, this year they slipped to 64.9 cents.
Youth and work experience contribute to the disparity, though other factors also are at play. Women are represented in almost all job categories, but almost half are concentrated in R&D and QA positions. In those jobs, the gap persists but narrows: Female QA professionals earned 82 cents to the dollar of male counterparts. Women in R&D received 73 cents on the dollar.
When respondents under the age of 30 are compared, the salary figures are a little more equitable. Women in that age group reported average compensation of $55,266, compared to $63,865 for their male peer group. New blood comes in a wider age range. An analysis of people with five years or less industry experience shows men brought home $82,897 on average, compared to $56,927. Those callow fellows had a higher-than-average satisfaction score (3.67), while the women scored a below-average 3.45.
“Lack of appreciation, work load has increased to the level of a manager, but I have not been given appropriate compensation,” a young woman working in a small firm’s marketing department writes. “Lack of direction. Lack of training. No clear expectations or job descriptions. Little support,” adds a recent female food scientist working in dairy production. “Not enough money” is a young female QA professional’s lament.
Regardless of gender, average compensation for QA staffers is $78,114, the penultimate level among the survey’s job categories (maintenance is lowest at $73,923). Maintenance and engineering are the most egalitarian categories, based on the gap between average salaries vs. the One Percenters. Top earners in maintenance bring home 62 percent more than their group’s average, while the highest paid engineers earn 73 percent more than the average.
One Percenters in marketing have 125 percent larger-than-average paychecks, purchasing top earners get 138 percent more, and R&D leaders receive 190 percent more than their peers. Excluding the mixed-bag “other” category, corporate workers have the greatest spread: Even when respondents collecting more than $500,000 are excluded (and we did have two in that lofty category), top corporate earners received three times the category mean.
Money can’t buy love or, as the survey demonstrates, satisfaction -- even at six figures. Of those expressing deep or moderate dissatisfaction with their jobs, one in five earn $120,000 or more. They are among the more seasoned veterans, with an average tenure in the industry of 20 years. Job security is part of the issue: Half of this group say they are more concerned about their jobs than they were a year ago, double the insecurity rate for the rest of the sample.
Certainly, pay rates are a factor. The average wage of very dissatisfied workers is $10,000 less per year than for the overall sample. But the ratio of very and somewhat dissatisfied professionals who indicated salary and benefits are the single most important factor in job satisfaction was only slightly higher than for all respondents.
The opportunity for advancement, on the other hand, is where this group diverges from the mainstream. One in five dissatisfied employees tabbed advancement opportunities as the most important factor in providing them with a strong sense of job satisfaction, double the ratio for workers who are satisfied or neutral. “Not having the opportunity to advance and make a real living wage” was one disaffected professional’s explanation. “With our company’s huge growth, bonuses and raises could be higher,” added a college grad stuck in a customer operations position.
The Bliss Index
As the survey results make clear, financial and emotional security impact how an individual views his or her job. Food companies must compete with other employers to attract and retain professionals, and the feedback suggests most do so by extending certain key benefits. Medical insurance is part of the job for 89.3 percent of this year’s respondents. Dental insurance is received by 79.5 percent, and 74.6 percent participate in a 401(k) plan to which the employer contributes.
Given the long tenures food professionals have, both at their current companies and in the industry, it’s reasonable to assume people are generally satisfied in the food industry and might recommend it as a career path. If a son or daughter sought advice, would work in one particular industry segment be preferable to the others? That’s a subjective call, but to see if the pay, benefits, satisfaction and feeling of security is better in some areas, we crunched the numbers for eight processing categories.
Respondents working in the beverage category gave their jobs an overall satisfaction score of 4.2, well above the survey’s 3.6 on a 5-point scale. Baked goods was next at 3.8. Baked goods and confectionery professionals indicate they feel the most secure in their jobs. Confectionery companies are the most likely to provide medical and dental insurance, with 94 percent of respondents receiving both.
Dairy processors are close behind, and that category leads the field on four financial benefits: 401(k) matches, pension plans, profit sharing and stock options. The majority of dairy people reported receiving at least two of those benefits, and one individual receives all four. Respondents working in the grain products category were close behind, with 95 percent receiving at least one of those benefits.
So, what guidance does Food Processing’s 8th Annual Salary & Job Satisfaction Survey provide for the young food careerist? If salaries, bonuses, satisfaction and security of the people working in the field are any guidance, then the answer is, yes. Responses from individuals in eight industry segments with a large enough sample were analyzed to create a Bliss Index.
Each segment was ranked on the basis of eight metrics: median and mean salaries, health care coverage, financial benefits (pensions, 401(k) match, stock options and profit sharing), job satisfaction and level of job security. On that basis, the top segment is baked goods, followed by grain products & milling and dairy production.
Of course, the importance of those metrics as well as others are in the eye of the beholder. The people who do the work and push their organizations forward are in the best position to make the satisfaction and salary tradeoffs. As one wrote, “After so many years in this industry, I still look forward to going to work each day. I get satisfaction from seeing people who I trained 20 years ago teaching new people in our industry.” Adds another: “I can’t complain. I’m very happy and lucky; many have it worse.”
One of those individuals earns $15,000 less than the survey average (a woman), the other makes twice as much (a man). Both work in corporate positions. Both are involved in baked goods, but similar sentiments are expressed throughout the industry.