When the Labor Pool Dries Up

Jan. 22, 2020
Penning his first of many monthly columns, Food Processing's Senior Editor ponders the state of the food and beverage workforce.

Introducing a new monthly column by our very own Pan Demetrakakes. 

Why is it so difficult to get people to come work at a food plant?

Answering that question might be the key to survival for more than a few food and beverage companies. Before you can get product out the door, you have to get people in through it. That’s proving to be an industrywide problem.

Labor availability is consistently a top concern among food and beverage plant managers. They share that anxiety with manufacturing as a whole: According to one estimate, as many of 4.6 million industrial jobs might go unfilled over the next decade or so.

Food has it especially tough, for several reasons:

  • The work is hard. This may make me come off like the cranky old man I suppose I am, but the amount of hard work out there seems to exceed the number of people, especially young people, who want to do it. Whenever I ask plant managers or other industrial employers about their hiring experiences, I get an earful of "kids these days ..." An owner of a motor repair and rewinding shop told me about a youngster who asked him, on his first day on the job, if there was a place near his workstation where he could plug in his phone.

“Is your battery running down?” the guy asked.
“Not yet,” replied Johnny Newbie. “But I want to stream ‘Better Call Saul’ while I work, and it’s an hour long.”

  • The work is really hard. There’s no polite way to say this: A lot of food plants are just nasty places to work. Cold or heat, bad odors, slippery floors, noise, repetitive tasks that dull minds while they strain muscles and joints, hazards like sharp knives and moving machinery, and so on. Not all food plants have all of these drawbacks, of course. But no matter what they make, food & beverage plants have the same basic mission: pushing as much product out the door as fast as possible. That means fast-paced work, and as anyone who has ever answered (or written) a job ad knows, “fast-paced” is a euphemism for “super-hard.”
  • There are fewer people to do it. The labor pool available to the industry is shrinking, due to factors both long-established and relatively new.

The birthrate has been declining for decades, an issue that exacerbates the problem of workers, especially skilled ones, retiring out of the workforce. The anti-immigration attitude of the Trump administration has profound implications for the food industry, where employers have always drawn on immigrants (and, in many cases, have been less than diligent about making sure they’re legal).

But perhaps the biggest factor affecting the labor pool is the overall employment picture. Unemployment has been at a record low for years on end. This brings us to what in my opinion is the most overwhelmingly important reason the food industry has trouble attracting workers:

  • It doesn’t pay well enough. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the mean wage for food processing workers in 2018 (the last year available) was $13.26 an hour, $27,590 a year. This is 30% less than the mean wage for all production occupations. In times of low unemployment, who’ll work in a food plant if they can get a better-paying job in a more pleasant environment?

This situation is motivating a lot of people to look at automation. But automation, for all its potential, isn’t going to solve the labor problem anytime soon. The biggest problem is that demands for flexibility, in packaging and all other aspects of food manufacturing, keep going up. Automated equipment – for all the advances in servos and other digital components – can’t, for the most part, keep pace. Simply put, it takes people to change things over.

So, the answer seems to be staring us in the face: raise wages.

But like most of life, it’s not that simple. Even more than most manufacturers, food processors are under enormous pressure to keep prices down, which means driving costs out. This will almost always overwhelm any upward pressure on wages caused by low unemployment.

My own feeling is that this is where government has to step in, by raising the minimum wage and setting certain other minimum employment standards. Government can’t and shouldn’t run the business world, but one of its proper functions is to set a floor. If it doesn’t, food and other industries will keep sinking.

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