Training and Sustaining Your Workforce

Automation, software and PLCs dictate the workforce requirements in the contemporary food plant, and processors everywhere are struggling to find workers with the skills to keep plants running smoothly.

By Mike Pehanich, Plant Operations Editor

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Staffing and training. Simple words. But to the food processor in the high-tech era, they can be monumental challenges.

Gone is the day when a strong back, solid work ethic and most basic of machine operating skills were high credentials for a job on the floor of a food plant. Automation and computer control demand higher skills and more sophisticated training. But much of the required talent has gone to industries with better reputations for high technology and advancement. A common complaint among processors today is they do not have the pick of the lot when it comes to labor talent.

Workers today seek more flexibility in their jobs even if they have to balance the trade with greater productivity. And in today's job seeker's market, the script has been flipped, and workers with skills are dangling them before prospective employers.

Adapting to the changing plant and changing workforce has become one of the most formidable challenges in today's food industry.

"Getting the right people - and good people - is one of our toughest jobs," says Doug Wimberly, president of Butter-krust Bakery, a division of Southern Bakeries, headquartered in Lakeland, Fla.

Drawing from talented labor pools and providing adequate training - and luck - are the only solutions. But sometimes the talent just ain't in the neighborhood, and, as always, training takes time and money.

Changing workforce

If the generations aren't colliding in the food plant, they are at least out of step. Older hands with decades of knowledge are yielding to talented youngsters with little knowledge of the industry. The challenge of managing today's workforce is magnified by the escalation in information technology, which younger workers have grown up with and many veteran workers still dread.

A convenient demographic breakdown helps to identify four generations in the modern American workplace: Veterans, Baby Boomers, Generation X and Generation Y.

Veterans and Baby Boomers - the senior members of the workforce - are accustomed to being closely managed and given orders. They are concerned with job security, health insurance and defined job responsibilities. They value maturity, loyalty and work ethic.

Generation X and Generation Y workers - more recent arrivals to the workplace - appear to be more dynamic though volatile. They are excited about change, seek growth opportunities and strive to move forward. They want to work and grow. They need a career ladder. They may value their personal time and time with family. They resist the temptation of letting their jobs define them.

Veterans and Boomers may be slower to adapt to new systems or resist change entirely. "But with young people, you hear ‘You mean you are still doing that manually? I can do this in minutes on the computer!'" says Stacy Campbell-Dominick, program director for Polk Works/Workforce 2020, a workforce development program in Florida's Polk County.

Yet it is the Vets and Boomers who have the maturity, knowledge and experience that comprise the bedrock of company capability. How might the twain meet?

"You try to create a mentor/coach relationship so when the Boomers retire, that maturity doesn't go out the door," says Campbell-Dominick.

Companies do need to plan for inevitable departures. Workers young and old migrate from job to job at an unprecedented rate today. Downsizing to maintain "lean and mean" manufacturing organizations has done little to foster loyalty, stability or continuity, not to mention development of a deep knowledge base. Compounding the problem, Gen X and Y workers, born into a world of brief stays, are not averse to leaving when their part of the job is complete.

"Whether experienced workers leave voluntarily or involuntarily, you often have no one left at the organization who understands a role after the departure of key personnel," says Campbell-Dominick. "Opportunity for growth requires succession planning."

The dearth of workers with needed skills and knowledge has made training and retaining key personnel matters of dire consequence. Since the early 1990s, food companies repeatedly have leaped to cost-saving worker cuts without figuring out how they would operate with fewer minds and bodies. Many have paid a high price for the decision. Fairness and morale also make succession planning important, as workforce loyalty and performance can be greatly influenced by management's consideration and handling during downsizing.

"Companies that do not make room for training and development have retention issues," says Campbell-Dominick.

Seeding the worker pool

Dave Zepponi, president of the Northwest Food Processors Assn., has urged food processors, along with their partners in support industries, to pool efforts to reduce training costs and improve the overall quality of training. Processors in his region of the Pacific Northwest have started to heed the call. When Zepponi spoke to Florida processors in January 2005, he helped to spur a similar practice in Campbell-Dominick's area of Polk County.

To attract or retain food companies, the regions themselves now are taking the bull by the horns as well, securing grants and coughing up home dollars to upgrade the skill level of the local work pool. Some are even getting food companies - including competitors - to contribute to the pool of trainees to make training more affordable.

That's the case in Polk County. "We will pool with Juice Bowl and Pepperidge Farm," says Butterkrust's Wimberly.

Polk Works Workforce 2020 is a nationally acclaimed program backing the Central Florida Development Council's (CFDC ) commitment to attracting and keeping businesses. Formed in 1999, it is a collaborative initiative of CFDC and the Polk County Workforce Development Board, (Polk Works). It links businesses with local learning institutes and assists local businesses with the hiring, training and retention of personnel.

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