Hiring and retention of line workers and managment level workers are a top priority of processors according to M+P's Processor Confidence Study.
While the unemployment rate may ebb and flow with the health of the economy, opportunities for employment in the meat and poultry industry have historically been plentiful. As the industry continues evolving and technology becomes more sophisticated and expertise in all facets of procuring, processing and marketing products all play more prominent roles for processing companies, managing and maintaining a workforce has perhaps never been a higher priority. In fact, in MEAT+POULTRY’s 2016-2017 Processor Confidence Study, respondents reported that labor issues are among their top business concerns, ranking even higher than food safety. Fifty-nine percent of the 322 respondents, representing 245 companies, reported that “lack of skilled labor” was their top business concern vs. 56 percent citing “food safety” as the top concern. Labor costs too, are a significant worry, with half of the respondents in the survey ranking it as a top concern.

While keeping the funnel full for positions available to current candidates, the industry is looking closely at where to recruit the most eligible employees while looking to universities to do their part to prepare graduating seniors in food science and animal science majors for the job market that awaits them. Meanwhile, HR executives at processing companies constantly are putting feelers out to recruit the best-qualified candidates to fill positions at all levels of operations, from on-floor supervisors to middle managers and executive-level leaders.
Bill Barrows (front, middle) HR director with Deli Star Corp., says technology and the sophistication of the industry has required companies like his to evolve its hiring and retention practices for both the leadership team and line workers. 

Changing times

Bill Barrows, human resource director with Fayetteville, Illinois-based Deli Star Corp. says recruiting for positions with the manufacturer of high-end cooked meats is a moving target and the hiring process in the meat industry has evolved much like it has in many professions.

Technology has played a substantial role in how jobs are posted and how candidates apply for positions. Harkening back to the days when he worked in HR with other firms, Barrows says, “Everything in those days was done by word of mouth and by local newspaper ads,” which has given way to electronic job listing services, social media platforms and employment recruitment companies. Companies also used to spend considerable resources, including months of traveling each year to recruit on the campuses of universities as well.

“Now, the only college recruiting I do is for meat scientists at the Univ. of Illinois,” Barrows says, largely because of the proximity of the school and the fact that Dan Siegel, Deli Star’s founder, his two sons and several members of the executive team were recruited from U of I. Using social media sites, including LinkedIn and Facebook combined with utilizing a job listing service like Zip Recruiter can easily result in receiving 100 applications in the matter of a few days vs. a few weeks or more, which used to be the norm.

Barrows says despite the vehicles available to applicants to apply for jobs in the food industry, including Deli Star, “there is a shortage (of candidates), especially in the managerial, supervisory roles.”

Plant workers, he says, are more plentiful and Deli Star has had success filling many of those roles with the assistance of temporary agencies that provide a steady flow of contingent workers. Given the seasonality of demand for products, Barrows says a lot of companies opt to utilize temporary workers. “Many of Deli Star’s permanent plant workers started out working on a temporary basis and were later hired on full-time when the need warranted it. Fortunately, thanks to minimal turnover, most of the hiring at Deli Star is to accommodate growth.”

Looking ahead, Barrows says management realizes millennials will soon make up more than 50 percent of the workforce. And among this segment of the workforce, “they are looking for that balance between work and home and between professional and personal life, and we’re trying to get ahead of that.” Policies including paid maternity leave for new mothers and leave for new fathers are part of that movement. The family owned company subscribes to a servant leadership role and that mentality resonates throughout its executive team and benefits the entire team.

“Look at what makes the family successful and that’s what defines this place,” Barrows told M+P in a feature story this past July. The company’s commitment to its employees isn’t just lip service as it has committed to programs that include health and wellness (including on-site fitness facilities, yoga classes and even a meditation room).

The strategy is in lockstep with Deli Star’s mission statement: “To improve the health, well-being and quality of life of all Deli Star employees by empowering people to promote and model positive attitudes and behaviors through a lifelong commitment to wellness.”

|||Read more about Education|||

Temple Grandin, Ph.D., a professor of animal science at Colorado State Univ., recently discussed career development with a classroom packed with animal science students contemplating their next steps after graduation.

Classroom perspectives

Beka Crocket, career liaison at Colorado State Univ.’s animal science department, acts as a career guidance counselor to students in any of the many facets of animal science at CSU. She helps facilitate internships and each year she leads a class for sophomores to encourage them to explore different career opportunities as they near graduation. She recently invited a guest speaker, Temple Grandin, Ph.D., a longtime professor of animal science at CSU and contributing editor to M+P, to spend more than an hour with her students to take a closer look at their career aspirations and helped them develop a roadmap for how they could find a fulfilling career. Grandin told the students that a passive approach to pursuing a career is not the course to maximizing their potential and encouraged each of them to “try on” a variety of potential professions before graduating.

Crocket agrees. “New professionals may not have enough exposure to different work environments prior to entering into the world of work,” she says, “so they may find themselves working in an area that is of great discomfort to them,” resulting in them leaving a job early because their job expectations were different than the reality.

She adds that especially in animal science-related careers, graduates can benefit from flexibility in their acceptance of jobs just after graduation. Paying dues initially and for the short term can result in great learning experiences and making sacrifices, including relocating to regions that are not exactly glamorous, are sometimes the price of admission for getting into a rewarding field. “Most companies have locations that are not necessarily in an area where a student has studied or has family, thus new professionals might like the company but are unwilling to relocate,” Crocket says.

Location, location

Geographic location is often a challenge for processors with operations that tend to be in rural locations where the labor pool is limited. Mike Martin, spokesman at Wichita, Kansas-based Cargill, says some of the best job candidates are discovered within the company’s existing operations.

“We do hire many people at our processing plants who we then train,” he says.

“Also, there are many rural areas where large processing plants are located that have limited pools of workers to draw from. We employ a variety of methods to recruit, including advertising, working with local and state workforce agencies, mobile recruiting and others,” he says.

Especially for hourly workers, pay rate is a priority, but not the only consideration for employees who have dependents relying on their jobs and benefits.

Martin says Cargill offers competitive pay, adding: “Some of our plants operate under collective bargaining agreements with labor unions.” And besides hourly wages, employees are offered benefits and a variety of adult education support. Cargill and other processors also assist workers in finding suitable living arrangements, and in some cases, transportation to jobs and schools. “Another related challenge in some rural areas is a lack of housing to accommodate new employees and their families,” he says.

Career brokering

Michael Deal, manager of Agri-associates Inc., is a veteran recruiter of employees for a wide variety of food-business related companies. Deal joined the company in 1979 and focuses on executive searching and recruiting for agricultural companies worldwide.

“Any company having anything to do with food, we work with,” he says, and he has seen plenty of changes in employment trends, but also says some things have remained consistent through the years.

In the past decade, salary growth has been the highest among maintenance managers, hatchery managers and human resource managers, he says.

“Maintenance managers will always be in demand. They have been since I started in 1979, they still are and we see no end in sight.”

Likewise, he says demand for processing plant workers “is very strong and it has always been strong,” as has the demand for hatchery managers. HR management positions, on the other hand, have become much more sophisticated and are in higher demand than in years past.

Agri-associates’ client mix varies year to year. Deal says, for example, many years ago, farm equipment companies were big, but that trend is no longer the sweet spot. Currently, the company works with a large number of poultry companies, including broiler, turkey, layer and even some duck companies. It also recruits for pork and beef companies, both on the live production side and in processing. The company recruits for staff and line management positions. “We recruit for full-time, salaried positions,” he says, from supervisors to CEOs whose annual salaries range from approximately $40,000 up to $300,000.

At any given time it isn’t uncommon for Deal to be working to fill 200 positions.

“Most of the people we are dealing with are currently employed but are either interested in or would consider a different or better opportunity.”

Recruiting firms like Agri-associates, typically fill positions with experienced workers whose background is similar to the position being filled. The recruiter maintains a database of approximately 35,000 resumes. Applicants can become part of the pool of candidates free of charge as the company is paid by the hiring firm.

“Companies pay us to find people,” Deal says. “We are more expensive than a newspaper ad.”

When it comes to job listings, “There is always a minimum education requirement and a minimum experience requirement and then we want to know the ideal candidate.

“All companies would rather look at candidates that have some experience as opposed to those that have none,” Deal says, which includes just-graduated college students. “A poultry science major has little to no exposure to and education in running a processing plant.”

Deal adds: “There’s never a time when we’ve got more qualified candidates than we have jobs.” It takes a more diverse skill set to supervise all of the positions required to run a plant than it did 25 years ago, he says.

Food business processes have become more sophisticated in terms of equipment, food safety practices and the manner in which employees are treated to limit turnover. It’s a labor intensive industry, Deal says, which will always require a high level of supervision and he doesn’t expect that to change despite an increase in automation.

“They have to not only be able to supervise and manage people well,” he says, but supervisors and managers must also be well versed in the intricacies of running today’s technology-rich processing facilities.