Niche Meat Processor Assistant Network logo
KANSAS CITY, Mo. – It’s hardly a secret that the meat and poultry industry is grappling with an almost crippling labor shortage. Many potential employees are being lured to careers in which working conditions are less harsh, upward mobility is foreseeable, management often is more attentive, and pay is likely better. These and other issues have spawned a crisis regarding how to properly recruit, hire and retain promising individuals in the meat industry.

On May 2, the Niche Meat Processor Assistance Network (NMPAN) addressed the challenging labor situation from the perspective of processors during a webinar, “Find Em’, Keep Em’: How to Retain Good Labor for Your Meat Plant.” In this webinar, operators of three meat companies described how they dealt with tracking down and hiring, training, and keeping employees in their service.

The event was the second in a series of webinars offered by NMPAN.

The webinar began with Joe Cloud, co-owner of T&E Meats, Harrisburg, Virginia, discussing the ways his company finds and hires new employees, comparing it to how a coach assembles a team of players.

“We’re like the NFL on draft day. We’re looking for the best available athlete,” he said. In many cases, experience in the meat industry isn’t as important as an applicant’s character. “We look for the people that are reliable, honest, trustworthy, upbeat, and trainable,” he said. For recruitment methods, Cloud said his company routinely uses Craigslist to post job openings because it is affordable and effective. Sometimes, T&E posts help-wanted ads even when the company is not actively hiring workers. This allows the company to test the waters for any prospective workers. Ultimately, Cloud believes that when it comes to identifying and hiring workers, “You got to be on it all the time.”

Addressing training and retention issues, Bruce Hennessey, co-owner of Maple Wind Farm, Huntington, Vermont, said new workers are expected to wear many hats at his company. “Cleaning eggs, packing and distributing and delivering, and going to farmer’s markets,” are just a few of the duties. According to Hennessey, the learning curve involved for new workers, “does present a challenge on the training end of things,” but exposes workers to all facets of the operation. “We find it makes for a much happier crew, and for people who really understand what other folks are doing on the farm while they’re in the plant.”

The approach requires more training time up front, but Hennessey said it also fosters a sense of teamwork. “They understand that there’s challenges everywhere and that everybody’s working together; it makes for a much tighter team in that respect.” Maple Wind Farm uses designated trainers, including general job training and experienced employees to teach the finer points of more specific tasks, “specifically the really skilled areas like evisceration and parting and things like that,” he said. Hennessey gave an example of this one-on-one form of training regarding the processing of chickens, stating, “We spend a couple of weeks doing just a few birds at a time, really giving people a chance to learn how to do each skill correctly,” he explained. “And then they also train on different jobs in the plant, and then we ramp up to four full-time in the third week with our full schedule.”

Evan Gunthorp, the owner of Gunthorp Farms (found in LaGrange, Indiana) then discussed his way of finding and recruiting new staff members, as well as how he handles their training and retention. To fill positions at his plant, Gunthorp, unlike Cloud, utilizes a staffing agency, which has the benefit of allowing him to focus on his day-to-day operations while recruiting from a bigger group of candidates.

“They’ve allowed me to pull from different pools of people” when it comes to the kind of workers he hires. Once an applicant becomes an employee, Gunthrop embraces the Golden Rule, he said. “Treat them how you would want to be treated.”

He pointed out that company leaders benefit from setting a good example as a boss or a supervisor. “An employee is never going to respect a manager whatsoever if they don’t respect the person first,” he said.

NMPAN will host the next in its webinar series, “Safe & Sound: Creating a positive workplace environment for your meat business,” on June 21 at 8 a.m. CDT.