Working With The Next Generation of Plant Pros

Whether it's supervisors, technical specialists or front-line workers, attracting, training and retaining younger employees is the name of the game in ensuring today's food plants continue to operate smoothly tomorrow.

By Kevin T. Higgins, Managing Editor

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Grace never has been a hallmark of the baby boomers, so it should come as no surprise that they are not quietly riding into the sunset of retirement. Younger workers waiting to move up will have to pry the parking passes out of their cold, dead hands.

Reluctance to step aside can be found in all occupations, manufacturing included. The median age of the manufacturing workforce spiked to 46.1 years in 2013, up from 40.5 years in 2000, statistics from the U.S. Dept. of Labor indicate. For high-skilled manufacturing workers, the average age is 57. Thin investment portfolios are the only thing preventing them from plotting their retirements.

Retire they will, of course, or eventually leave the break room feet first.

Retirement-related turnover always has been a fact of life, though the current volume of U.S. workers entering their golden years is unprecedented. A 2010 study by the Pew Research Center calculated 11,476 Americans will turn 65 each day for the next 20 years (a somewhat lower figure of 10,000 was calculated in the Social Security Administration’s Annual Performance Plan for fiscal-2012).

Part of the replacement-worker challenge for food is location: production facilities are more likely found in rural than urban areas, close to supply sources. Drawing skilled workers to those locations can be a long-term sales job.

Le Mars, Iowa, is ideal for collecting the milk Wells Dairy needs to make ice cream, but finding skilled workers who will relocate is no easy task. Urban areas, on the other hand, are rich in specialists in every skill area: The number of college-educated 25-34 year olds has surged 37 percent since 2000. In fact, only five of the 50 largest urban areas — Charlotte, N.C., Miami, San Antonio, Baton Rouge, La., and Wichita, Kan. -- are experiencing severe skills gaps, according to the Boston Consulting Group.

Another food-staffing challenge is the pool of job candidates with the multidisciplinary skills that modern manufacturing demands.

Mechanical aptitude still is a fundamental requirement for maintenance professionals, but they also must possess a working knowledge of electronics if they are to troubleshoot system upsets.

In a panel discussion on workforce training at the 2014 Rockwell Automation Fair in Anaheim, Calif., Eric Robker, manager-automation controls team at Gatorade’s Tolleson, Ariz., bottling plant, cited the need for “multi-skilled technicians” to keep machinery running. The facility contracted with Rockwell to provide electrical “foundational skills” to mechanics with “craft skills.” They don’t have to understand the inner workings of a PLC, Robker said, but they need to quickly diagnose complex problems and get the right specialists involved when necessary.

Vendor University

Outsourcing of engineering and other high-skill positions lowered operating costs but left food plants with bare-bone staffs that are ill-equipped to keep complex systems running. “Two decades ago, you could find a utilities engineer, a facility engineer and two or three process engineers in food and other industries,” observes Cam Spence, national director-food, beverage and pharmaceutical at Armstrong International Inc., a Three Rivers, Mich., supplier of steam and hot water systems. “Now, there’s maybe one, and he struggles with the brain drain.”

Three years ago, Armstrong began developing on-line training modules for plant personnel to familiarize them with the principles of flow measurement, condensate return and other fundamentals of steam power. The firm now offers 156 courses, organized under the Armstrong University umbrella.

“Cargill and ADM are staffed to the gills” with experts in steam power and other areas, “but otherwise it’s rare to have the expertise needed in house,” adds Spence. “Refrigeration people are facing the same challenges of finding answers to existing issues.”

Rockwell’s Glenn Goldney, global business director-workforce and training services, tells a similar story. Driven by pleas from major food companies, the Milwaukee-based automation firm began developing a craft skills curriculum seven years ago. It now numbers 54 courses.
Rather than focusing on Rockwell technology, the courses provide “agnostic training” on equipment that isn’t even part of Rockwell’s portfolio: servicing pumps, valves, bearings and other components. “The No. 1 course we sell is basic math skills,” reports Goldney, indicative of the knowledge needs of front-line workers in modern manufacturing.

Partnering with local technical schools might deliver similar skills development, but that would result in uneven orientation for multi-location food processors. “We can deliver the same content to all of their plants” in monthly training sessions presented on site, he adds. In recent years, instruction in leadership skills for younger staffers being groomed to replace retiring professionals has been added. “We’re transforming to this because our customers are pushing us for it,” Goldney says.

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