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Tackling the Food Manufacturing Industry’s Labor Shortage

The shortage of skilled manufacturing workers has reached a crisis level. This problem has widespread implications across the entire U.S. manufacturing industry, including all aspects of the food and beverage industry.

Unfortunately, the problem will likely only get worse. According to the 2015 Skills Gap Report from the Manufacturing Institute, there will be a dizzying 2 million unfilled U.S. manufacturing jobs by 2025.

In his 25 years at Nation Pizza, retired Chief Operating Officer Michael Alagna witnessed the talent crunch firsthand. He became increasingly frustrated that companies weren’t putting more resources into turning the tide on this alarming trend. So, in his retirement, he has dedicated himself to bringing workers back to manufacturing. Working with such organizations as the Chicago-area Schaumburg Business Association (SBA) and FPSA, Alagna has become an outspoken advocate for the innovative methods companies can—and, indeed, must—use to revitalize their workforce.

We spoke to Alagna about his experience in advocacy and outreach, and what he thinks the industry as a whole can do to make the skills gap a thing of the past.

Sources of the Shortage

There was a time, not all that long ago, when manufacturing was widely considered to be an admirable career choice. A worker in manufacturing could achieve job security and enough financial stability to raise a family and buy a house. If anything, there were not enough jobs to keep up with demand. So why do we now face a mammoth labor shortage?

College Prep and an Image Problem

Alagna fondly recalls his time at Lane Technical High School in Chicago. The school held 5,200 students who attended mainly shop classes. His trade-school education gave him excellent grounding to enter—and excel at—his chosen field.

Four years ago, however, Lane Tech eliminated its last shop program. Now, the school provides a college preparatory curriculum. The end of Lane’s vocational program was in line with a nationwide trend that encouraged attendance at a four-year college for all students. This often came at the expense of professional development in the trades.

Alagna sees 2001’s No Child Left Behind Act as reinforcing the idea of college prep for all. But vocational education in the United States has been on the decline since the 1970s. Some feared that vocational schools reinforced economic and racial segregation. Regardless of the exact reasons for the decline, the result was that trade schools--and the trades they fed into--suffered not only in numbers, but also in image.

If institutions in the community didn’t support the trades, then young people and their families had very few positive associations to draw on. Alagna sums up the general sentiment succinctly, if depressingly: Increasingly, young people weren’t drawn to manufacturing because they had the mistaken impression that “it’s dark, dingy, just not a good career.”

Technology and Resistance from Within

Alagna notes that manufacturing’s “image problem” is significant, but it’s not the only issue at hand. Part of the reason the labor shortage has persisted is because of technological changes in the industry, and also how companies have responded to those changes.

With increased reliance on computerized numerical controls (CNCs) and other methods of automation, some manufacturing jobs that used to exist are no longer. Plus, there’s the looming possibility of Industry 4.0. But companies still need skilled laborers on hand with the know-how to utilize these digital tools.

Of course, these technological developments are expensive. But time and time again, Alagna has seen companies with limited capital put their resources into technology instead of labor. While this may seem like a short-term solution to the labor shortage, it’s simply burying the problem. Companies need to come together to bring fresh workers into their field.

Time for an Image Makeover

First and foremost, Alagna believes, the industry needs to remake manufacturing’s tarnished image and get the message out that manufacturing is no longer all “wrenches and screwdrivers.” Instead, maintenance workers, for example, need to know how to use sophisticated equipment like programmable logic controllers (PLCs). And computerized technology is, frankly, way cooler to Millennials than wrenches are.

Alagna also believes that more young people would get into manufacturing if they knew how well it pays. He estimates that a young worker who graduates from a two-year college prepared to work in mechatronics or with CNCs could start in the range of $40,000 to $55,000, with paid overtime. In a short time, that salary could go up to $75,000 to $110,000.

Getting the Word Out

So, how can the manufacturing industry get the word out to young people? Alagna spoke excitedly about creating video content that will draw young people into the world of manufacturing. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Alagna has a slew of ideas that draw on conventional recruiting methods and outside-of-the-box strategies.

Bringing the Message to Schools

Alagna is convinced that the best way to hook young people into manufacturing is to bring back trade-focused education and training. And he’s putting his money where his mouth is, so to speak.

For example, Alagna and the SBA worked with Harper College, a community college in Palatine, IL, to develop a certificate, degree, and apprenticeship program in manufacturing. To ensure that the program attracts a steady stream of recruits, Alagna helped to found Harper’s Promise Scholarship program.

The Promise Scholarship allows students to attend Harper for free, as long as they meet certain rigorous criteria. Starting in high school, eligible students must maintain their grades, have strong attendance records, and participate in community service. Students who make it through the program have not only gained extensive experience and training--but they finish their two-year degree debt-free. That’s a significant benefit considering that the average debt for a 2015 college graduate who borrowed money was more than $35,000.

Other colleges in the Chicago area are creating scholarship programs similar to Harper’s. In fact, such scholarships are becoming a national trend. President Obama recently announced his plan for free community college. And the FPEC recently announced the FIT Program, a national certification program for technicians in the food and beverage industries.

Taken together, an increase in manufacturing education along with increased support for students to get to those programs bodes well for the future of manufacturing labor.

“All the Arrows in Their Quiver”: More Recruitment Strategies

At the end of the day, flashy videos and scholarship programs alone cannot reverse the years-long talent crunch. Alagna is certain that companies “need to use all the arrows in their quiver” to solve the hiring problem.

At a recent manufacturing summit convened by the SBA, Alagna put on a series of panels focusing on alternative hiring methods. During one session, representatives from a military placement firm addressed the crowd. These firms can identify individuals leaving the military who might have particular aptitudes for jobs in the manufacturing sector, and connect them with the right company.With ex-military personnel at higher unemployment rates than the general population, there are certainly plenty of connections to be made.

The Illinois Manufacturers’ Association also presented at the summit. Alagna noted that state associations can play an important role in getting the word out.

One of the recruitment models Alagna is most excited about came from a talk by Genevieve Martin of Dave’s Killer Bread. Martin discussed Dave’s “Second Chances” policy, their program for hiring ex-offenders. Far too often, ex-offenders have difficulty finding gainful employment, which contributes to high rates of recidivism. Dave’s has found that ex-offenders perform as successfully on the job as do non-offenders (an observation supported by Big Data. The Dave’s Killer Bread Foundation also offers resources for other companies that want to hire ex-offenders. Alagna, witnessing Dave’s success, has become a strong advocate for ex-offender hiring as well.

Getting Companies on Board

Even this vast array of methods won’t be effective unless all manufacturers get on board to address the labor shortage together. In the past, Alagna reflects, members of the industry coming up against shortages would often resort to poaching employees from other companies. But poaching doesn’t solve the problem. It just moves the parts around, while continuing to increase the overall cost of labor. Companies need to commit to ending poaching practices and instead find ways to address the problem together.

Food manufacturers also need to focus on retaining their own staff. That means not only hiring right, but also creating a work environment where employees want to remain. Millennial hires may be interested in greater flexibility and better work-life balance than their predecessors. While a flexible schedule isn’t always possible in manufacturing, it’s essential that companies come up with other enticements--opportunities for advancement, for example, or on-the-job training--to keep new hires on board.

Looking Down the Road

Around seven years ago, Alagna attended a conference where he heard the Assistant Secretary of Labor announce that manufacturing in the United States was dead. Not one to take things sitting down, Alagna got up and told her she was wrong. He’s been working to make good on his statement ever since.

Despite the array of “arrows in his quiver” when it comes to recruiting new talent, Alagna knows that the labor shortage isn’t a short-term problem. That’s why he’s so invested in partnering with schools, down to the middle-school level, to get students interested and on the path toward training and internships. His goal is to build the new hiring base from the ground up.

One potential bright light on the recruitment front is that some school districts are starting to reverse the emphasis on “college prep for all” and reinvest in vocational education. For example, in 2013, state lawmakers in North Carolina approved a bill designed to bring resources and status back to vocational education. The bill allows students to graduate with a diploma that certifies that “they are college-ready, career-ready, or both.” As this trend continues, manufacturing and other trades should see a marked increase in new recruits.

The talent crunch in food manufacturing remains urgent -- not simply because there are jobs that need filling now, but because the number of available jobs may be increasing soon. Alagna is confident that, as international costs come on par with domestic costs, more and more manufacturing is going to return from overseas.

The U.S. food manufacturing industry needs to be prepared to get those jobs back as soon as they arrive--with a ready, willing, and able workforce.