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How Three Processors Changed Their Rules To Attract Workers

June 14, 2024
Unique employee initiatives implemented by Land O'Lakes, Ruiz Foods and Birchwood Foods are novel approaches every processor should try.

Manufacturing sectors as a group have faced labor shortages for years, and although the sting of the labor crisis brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic has mostly subsided, there remain challenges to attracting workers and keeping them employed, particularly in food & beverage processing.

A 2024 talent study and report released by Deloitte and The Manufacturing Institute notes that a skills and applicant gap remains in manufacturing — as demand for manufactured goods has risen, companies have wanted to grow but been hindered by an inability to increase operations time because of a lack of workers.

In the food & beverage industry, some processors were impacted in the past year by that very labor shortage, having to slow down construction and renovation projects, as noted in our Capital Spending Report in April.

The Deloitte report concludes that manufacturers will need to apply “an innovative mindset to address talent challenges that face the industry,” and that “workers’ experiences can not only shape their professional journey but can also foster an inclusive and collaborative workplace that can help increase employee retention.”

In the food & beverage industry, several processors already have begun to capitalize on these types of innovative approaches to labor challenges.

Land O'Lakes: Be flexible

Even prior to the pandemic, flexible schedules and remote work had begun to infiltrate some industries — and many food & beverage industry veterans may have brushed off the trend as something untenable for the rigidity of a processing operation.

“What makes [flexible scheduling] hard for operations people — and I’m one of those — is we like standardization and structure; that’s what we are about,” says Yone Dewberry, senior vice president and chief supply chain officer for Land O’Lakes Inc. “And this is almost 180 degrees from there.”

Yet, the more Land O’Lakes consulted its crystal ball on the challenges of labor recruitment and retention in the near future, the more it leaned into an idea to bring flexible work to its facilities, Dewberry explains. Overall, the company saw workforce participation rate by generation continuing to slow down as the Baby Boomers retire and younger-generation workers putting more emphasis on work-life balance.

“I always say that you can’t fight demographics: Demographics always wins,” he adds. “So in the early part of 2022, we started talking about how we might be able to meet employees where they want to be.”

Land O’Lakes began to offer flexible scheduling for certain positions, transforming one full-time role into 2-3 flex workers who typically would work 16-30 hours each per week to get the job of one full-time employee done. At first, Dewberry relays, the company offered four-hour slots, but after listening to the flex work candidates, they found that wasn’t flexible enough — and the company shifted to even more flexibility, meaning a much larger challenge in planning work around when the flex workers were available.

“We’ve got one location near a college, and we have students that can work Tuesdays and Thursdays,” Dewberry says. “You couple that with other students who can work Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays, and you have everything you need.”

That sounds simplistic, but Dewberry says a company needs to treat each individual circumstance uniquely and commit to fitting the puzzle pieces together — because it can be a challenge from plant to plant. For Land O’Lakes, the program has continued to grow, with 60 sites participating and approximately 160 employees on the flex schedule program.

Dewberry says the flex work program has made a positive impact in several ways. First, when the company posts an open flex role, the response rate has been three to four times better than when it posts a standard, non-flex role. Additionally, at sites where Land O’Lakes has had flex work implemented for longer than a year, the turnover rate is 20 percentage points lower than the non-flex employees, he says.

The program also has improved the company’s efforts to advance fairness, equity and inclusion in its workforce. “It actually has helped us with our diversity, because it’s exposed us to a very different group of people potentially who couldn’t come to work for us before,” he says. “Think about the working parents who need to have very specific times for pick-up; this allows them to now participate in the Land O’Lakes employment pool.”

Dewberry advises processors that this is no overnight program. It requires a company that takes “time to understand what people want” and also understands this is a long-term journey that requires patience and commitment to stick with it through the ups and downs. His own goals for the program at Land O’Lakes reflect that messaging.

“Within the next three to five years, I’d like to get one site at 100% — that’s my aspirational goal,” he adds. “And I also believe that a large majority of our workforce can do this type of work in the 5- to 10-year range.”

Human resources technology and new strategies can help Land O’Lakes grow to meet those goals, and it anticipates needing a larger assist from innovation as time goes on.

“I see a future [where] if we ramp up to a certain percent, how do we schedule, because you can’t do it by hand anymore,” Dewberry adds. “You have to go through and determine the next thing needed to expand the program in a bigger way, and we’re looking at technology that might help us do that.”

Ruiz Foods: Be healthy

For Ruiz Food Products Inc., the long-term strategy, both pre- and post-pandemic, has been to envision and execute ways to make its facilities the local employers of choice, even with a definite shift in people’s attitudes about work.

“One thing we focus on as a long-term play is the ability to attract and retain [employees],” explains Tony Caetano, senior vice president of administration for Ruiz Foods. “What can we do to help differentiate ourselves beyond competitive wages and a very complete, strong benefit package?”

To take that next step, Ruiz Foods determined it could open on-site health centers at its facilities in order to help its employees maintain their health, save some money and create goodwill for the company with the workforce.

Certainly, Ruiz Foods isn’t the first company to develop this type of employee benefit, but Caetano says it has been well-received given the company’s smaller size.

“We’re doing the right thing, and it’s a real benefit to the team members because in companies of our size, it’s not typical,” Caetano says. “If you work for a Google or a Microsoft, they might have these as part of the benefits, but in our size it’s not typical at all.”

Each of Ruiz Foods’ locations now has a health center on site, and they’re all managed by a third-party medical company — but the medical doctor, nurse practitioner and two medical assistants at each location are dedicated to that center and Ruiz Foods’ employees. The centers are staffed to handle about 85% of primary care, and most of them can dispense medication to the patient as well, eliminating the need to visit a pharmacy separately.

Any employee on the company’s health insurance plan and their covered dependents can use the health centers, which have a separate public entrance from the plant for safety purposes. There are no co-pays for care or medication and no insurance forms to fill out and file. All this to make it more convenient for the workers and their families to stay healthy, which also keeps them on the payroll.

“The theory is our team members are going to be healthier,” Caetano says. “They’re going to do more preventive work because there are no costs associated and it’s convenient.”

Appointments are geared toward a holistic approach, where the practitioners are focused more on overall health than simply checking in on what the patient may have come in for on the previous visit. The results have been positive, with few employees opting out (to use a spouse’s insurance instead, for example), and most of the centers running about 60-80% capacity already.

Ruiz Foods expects use of the centers to increase as more employees use and spread positive experiences about their care there, and Caetano says the company is ready to offer more as warranted.

“It’s scalable; these facilities are big enough that we could either add a provider, where we would have multiple [providers] taking appointments at the same time, or add hours or days,” he says. The company will scale appropriately to help its employees as needs grow.

“The intent is that team members feel confident that they’re being done right by management and dealt with fairly by the company,” Caetano says. “We aim to do the right things, and that’s part of the reason a lot of our team members have long tenure here.”

Birchwood Foods: Be connected

At Kenosha Beef International (dba Birchwood Foods), labor challenges prior to and through the pandemic were no surprise either. Kimberly Crawford, vice president of human resources, occupational safety and learning & development for Birchwood, says the company instituted bonuses and put on a full-court press to get employees in similar fashion to many others.

Then, in 2022-2023, Crawford says things began to stabilize, but absenteeism became more of an issue that the company has worked to address. “Our focus has shifted to how you might view the customer, in that it’s more costly and expensive to have to find a new customer versus keeping a one,” she says. “We take the same approach with employees: It’s more costly and time-consuming to try to replace employees.”

Birchwood has worked on connecting better with its employees through enhanced training and better communication to ensure employees show up to work and are rewarded for their enthusiasm and efforts. Training efforts have been stepped up with plant management and up on the organization chart.

“We start with what we call ‘foundational leadership,’ and that covers the foundational basics of communication, how to manage conflict, how to coach and provide positive feedback — all in food manufacturing settings,” Crawford explains. This training program was rolled out in Birchwood Foods’ Columbus, Ohio, plant within the last year and has had a positive impact already.

“This plant has some of the lowest turnover of all three of our plants,” Crawford says. She adds that employee complaints at the facility are down to zero, when they used to be an issue at the facility.

“Supervisors understand what the expectations are because we’ve given them the opportunity to understand,” she says. “It’s very clear at Birchwood Foods how we expect them to behave as a leader, and for those who have gone through the program, it has made a difference.”

The program will be instituted at the company’s Kenosha, Wis., and Norcross, Ga., facilities based on the success in Ohio, Crawford adds. Additionally, the company has built on feedback from managers and recently created a “next-level leadership training” program and curriculum that helps managers develop and understand their leadership style and how that dynamic works with the team around them. Employees asked for an initiative of this variety, and Crawford says the company has answered and rolled it out this year.

Beyond the management teams, Birchwood Foods has opened the doors of communication with its employees wider through the use of artificial intelligence (AI). Crawford says the industry needs to be better prepared and better suited to handle the needs of the multilingual workforce in plants.

“We needed to be able to address our multilingual workforce, which is growing,” she explains. “It brings a lot of unique opportunity into our plants, but it also brings a lot of unique challenges, and we have to overcome and understand how to communicate with them in their spoken languages and help them assimilate to life in the United States.”

Crawford notes that during the pandemic, Birchwood Foods learned quickly that it needed to be more agile in communicating with these employees. The company needed employees to know to wear masks and get vaccinated when they were available, but it didn’t initially realize that a crucial point of communication wasn’t hitting the mark as well as it hoped.

“I can go get a written document in Burmese or Hakha Chin or any other language,” Crawford says. “What we learned from partnering with the some of the refugee agencies was the literacy was just not there. If you were born and raised in a refugee camp in the middle of a war-torn country, you probably didn’t learn how to read.”

Birchwood Foods turned to emerging AI technology for a solution. Generative AI was used to create spoken-word video training — whether full-length or shorter pieces of content — with avatars and accents that match the nationalities and dialects of the employees targeted for the communication. Crawford says the technology is still evolving, but she believes the rest of the industry should investigate its use.

“It’s fascinating and we’re doing a lot with it,” she says. “Our industry needs to embrace how to use artificial intelligence not just for the strategic business side, but in our training processes — that’s where it’s been most valuable for us.”

About the Author

Andy Hanacek | Senior Editor

Andy Hanacek has covered meat, poultry, bakery and snack foods as a B2B editor for nearly 20 years, and has toured hundreds of processing plants and food companies, sharing stories of innovation and technological advancement throughout the food supply chain. In 2018, he won a Folio:Eddie Award for his unique "From the Editor's Desk" video blogs, and he has brought home additional awards from Folio and ASBPE over the years. In addition, Hanacek led the Meat Industry Hall of Fame for several years and was vice president of communications for We R Food Safety, a food safety software and consulting company.

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