Call it cracked crystal ball syndrome, but if one word could sum up the outlook for food manufacturing in 2017, it would be uncertainty.
Whether the topic is salaries, staffing or capital spending, food production professionals who responded to Food Processing's 16th annual Manufacturing Outlook Survey were less certain about what the new year would mean than their peers who provided feedback in recent years. The ambivalence extended to their expectations for production in their own facilities, though twice as many anticipate an expansion in the number of lines or plants operated by their companies than a contraction or consolidation.
One development they are sure about is enforcement of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), with compliance required by all but the smallest processors by September. FSMA readiness ranked as the third most important issue in 2017, just below cost control and two notches behind food safety, the perennial top issue in food & beverage manufacturing.
General staff training nudged up in the top-issues rankings, although very few (one in 27) rated it as a top concern. FSMA requires food-safety training of every production worker, with documentation of the dates and successful completion of that training. Asked what steps they were taking to upgrade sanitation and food safety practices, three-quarters of survey respondents cited employee training, up sharply from recent years. Validation of the effectiveness of cleaning and sanitation procedures “in accordance with FSMA” will be vital, a beverage manufacturer volunteered.
Participation in independent food-safety audits of their facilities also is on the rise. Major retailers and foodservice operators are pressuring their suppliers to seek certification under one of the food safety standards endorsed by the Global Food Safety Initiative, and most respondents indicated their companies have done so. One in five is audited under proprietary standards created by firms such as Silliker and AIB International. Only 15 percent say certification under any standard is not being considered.
To increase the odds that their facilities will pass those audits, half of the survey participants say their companies are upgrading sanitation equipment, up from a third three years ago. Rapid microbial testing to validate the effectiveness of cleaning programs is used by three out of 10, 50 percent higher than in 2014. Beefed up HACCP plans, pest control and the use of expert consultants also are becoming more common.
Food industry employment mirrors the U.S. manufacturing sector, where the number of jobs is down 37 percent since its 1979 peak while output has more than doubled. Automation is the single biggest factor, and food companies face the same challenges as other manufacturers in recruiting and retaining qualified individuals to keep lines running.
“Limited workforce available for employment in production,” complained a produce processor, ranking the problem as a critical issue her company will face in 2017. “People availability in our region,” a poultry processor chimed in.
More than half of participating professionals indicated their companies were expanding in-house technical training to address the skills need. Recruitment of maintenance technicians was the next most common tactic, with two in five pursuing those in-demand workers. “Hiring individuals with automation background, computer skills, CAD/CAM, etc.,” a dairy processor wrote.
Similar strategies were evident in a question about optimization of assets: Almost half cited on-the-job training programs, and three in 10 said they were hiring more maintenance personnel. Even more are taking the work-team approach, shifting routine maintenance responsibilities to operators in order to free up time for preventive and complex repair tasks by maintenance technicians.
“Higher automation training needs to be made a priority for all electricians,” a beverage manufacturer suggested, touching on the electromechanical skills needed to maintain machinery with digital controls. One in six individuals surveyed indicated their companies were working with schools to help develop electromechanical courses.
One-quarter already are actively recruiting electromechanical technicians as they brace for the exodus of baby boomers. “The graying of the workforce, the need to hold on to skills that are not available in the marketplace” was of particular concern to one baker.
Given the challenge in attracting skilled technicians, one in four companies is seeking outside providers of maintenance services, an approach being applied in other service areas, as well. Despite the criticality of the issue, almost as many are not addressing it.