Training and Sustaining Your Workforce

May 5, 2006
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.

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.

PLC training a critical need

Advanced automation. Heightened food safety standards. Demand for thorough and error-free documentation. This technological evolution, driven largely by computerized operations, has processors facing critical shortages of personnel with the requisite training to fill vital manufacturing positions.

In January of 2005, Workforce 2020 and the CFDC gathered high profile processors to ascertain the industry's most acute labor and training needs. "We found an echoing concern for training a skilled workforce," notes Campbell-Dominick.

The most burning need was training in the use of programmable logic controllers, also known as PLCs or, simply, programmable controllers - small dedicated computers programmed to automate and control processing and packaging equipment. In recent years, these microprocessor-based units have brought the food industry into the high-tech era, activating and monitoring virtually every aspect of activity on processing lines.

PLCs have replaced numerous timers and relays that controlled operations in the past. They monitor activity including machine performance and energy output. They control and monitor motors, valves and sensing devices and ensure products meet quality standards throughout the process. PLCs help generate data critical to food safety and the forward and backward tracking of food products from raw ingredients to finished product.

Central Florida took the industry's needs to heart. Partnering with Polk Community College and other local learning institutions, Workforce 2020 secured a federal grant of $630,000 for manufacturing training and located key experts to manage the curriculum. In 2005, Polk County received a $400,000 grant to advance its PLC training programs.

"We help find the training funds, map the education and provide the training," says Campbell-Dominick. Other needs also are being addressed.

Butterkrust president Wimberly worked with a local community college to get needed training for one member of his engineering staff.

"It's hard to find individuals with the right mechanical and computer skills," says Wimberly. "But we were able to get the training we needed working with the county and Polk Community College."

"The food industry has had difficulty filling positions ranging from entry level to those demanding the highest skill requirements," says Nancy Thompson, executive director of Polk Works. "We established a manufacturing institute in 1996 to understand the industry and the dynamics of food manufacturing. It's designed for folks who want to work in manufacturing but are missing the requisite training. We identify the people who satisfy all the criteria but don't yet have the training."

The grant and program are structured around three levels of training: first jobs, better jobs and high-skill positions.

PLC training represented a "high-skill" training opportunity that food processors eagerly seized. Incorporated into the program is a "Train-the-Trainer" component that offsets some of the training cost by enabling companies to teach capable employees how to train other employees in requisite skill areas.

"We are an institute without walls," says Thompson of Polk Works. "Businesses tell us what they need and the best way to deliver the instruction, whether it's on site, off site or even out of state."

The grant actually extended to the wide spectrum of Polk County manufacturing firms. To no one's surprise, however, companies like Florida's Natural, Pepperidge Farm, Coca-Cola and Publix were among the first in line to take advantage of the opportunity.

"The grant is an overall manufacturing grant," explains Thompson, "but it just happens that much of our manufacturing here happens to be food. This is something unique to our area. We hope to put the infrastructure in place for food manufacturing employers that will last long beyond the grant."

And the "high skill" training won't stop at programmable logic controllers either. "We also want to develop a two-year associate of science degree in advanced manufacturing," says Thompson. "That, too, will be a major draw for manufacturers when we get it."

Vendor training

What kind of training do you need? And where do you start? Try your suppliers. Some may offer no more than simple answers about equipment operation and software. But others are finding advanced training and training assessment carries marketplace cachet.

Workforce changes - and workforce cuts - have been dramatic. Companies are doing today with three to four people what used to require 10. Yet the amount of time devoted to training at many companies has gone down instead of up.

"Worse yet, as they are going from 10 to three or four, much of the loss is in experienced individuals," says Kevin Ives, business manager for Milwaukee-based Rockwell Automation. The processor's challenge, he says is twofold: to do more with less, and to replace a 20- or 30-year veteran with people with five years of experience or less.

To answer such needs, Rockwell Automation offers four areas of services related to training:

  • Business assessment -
  • Instructor-led training -
  • Self-pace tools -
  • E-learning -
Electronic training tools, picked up from a web site or CD-ROM, can complement courses or refresh previously learned material. Rockwell augments what trainees do in the classroom with job aids and simulation programs. "You can put these aids in a suitcase and simulate how things work to refresh your own knowledge, or you can use them to help new employees learn from others," says Ives. The classroom remains a viable means of introducing fundamental ideas and conducting standard courses. As recently as five years ago, 85 percent of Rockwell training was standard course material delivered in a Rockwell classroom. But the market has changed. Tailored training is the norm today. "We have a tool that takes all the job tasks and helps us tailor training, to customize our course to the customer's needs," says Ives. "We customize the training around the application or the machine. We also do more of the training at the customer's site."
    Rockwell not only delivers training but also offers personnel job skill assessment, job requirement analysis and technology evaluation. All are vital to sizing up training needs. "Part of our training philosophy is to start first with assessing what you have," says Ives. "Help your workforce leverage the technologies it already has."

"It's all part of a training continuum that involves assessment, providing tools, actual training (classroom, custom, on-line and e-training), providing on-site vehicles, and refreshing - finding out what you don't know or going back for additional training or assessment," says Ives. "Studies have shown that, unless an individual receives ongoing training and can apply it, he or she will forget it. The classroom ultimately provides only about 25 percent of what trainees actually retain."

More help on the web:

Polk Works/Workforce 2020

Northwest Food Processors Assn.

Central Florida Development Council

Rockwell Automation

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