The labor market for meat and poultry processors continues to shrink, and while the hourly workers on the kill floor and fabrication lines tend to get the attention, there’s another set of employees the industry struggles to hire, train and retain.

Data and statistics show the shortage of labor extends to management, IT, marketing, sales, accounting and even the executive level positions. John Flood, International Food Manufacturers Association (IFMA) Education Foundation board member and founder of elevate, knows these salaried management and support positions are critical to drive company performance and longevity.

Last year, the IFMA Education Foundation, as part of their “People Future 2025” initiative, did an in-depth research project to figure out why the food manufacturing industry has difficulty attracting its next generation of salaried, support positions and managers, and what they could do to correct it.

“The long story short is we have an awareness and a perception issue,” Flood says. “As students and the younger generation take a look at our industry, they’re just turned off by it. They’re turned off simply because they don’t understand it.”

Flood, who retired as an executive with Wayne Farms in 2017, has since worked with the IFMA Education Foundation and put together a committee initially to create a guide of Best Practices for members of IFMA to attract, engage and recruit potential future employees to the industry who match up with member food manufacturing companies in new ways. People Future 2025 will be reporting in-depth recommendations at this year’s IFMA Presidents Conference in Scottsdale, Arizona. The committee includes those on the front lines witnessing the difficulties of hiring, HR directors and recruiters. Representatives from colleges and universities, who also play an important role in matching employers with students, sit on the committee as well.

“Our partner institutions include Michigan State, Penn State, Univ. of Illinois, Saint Joseph’s Univ. and Canisius to give us a good range of smaller, private institutions up to very large public institutions,” Flood says. “We get input from them on what companies really need to differentiate when engaging at the college and university level that goes way beyond just going to a job fair.”

Presented in 2018 at IFMA’s Presidents Conference, the Education Foundation showcased five best practices for companies to improve recruiting talent into their organizations.

Source: IFMA

What's important

To engage and develop a strategy to recruit the next generation of food manufacturing management and support, IFMA first needed to know what those students wanted.

According to a survey sponsored by the IFMA Education Foundation, not surprisingly 47 percent of student respondents chose salary and compensation to top their list of the things they wanted from a potential employer. Other critical areas include passion for the industry (31 percent), career advancement opportunity (23 percent), company history/stability (22 percent), work/life balance (20 percent) and educational opportunities (18 percent). Working for an innovative and cutting-edge company, having the right education and an alignment with company values came next, at 16 percent.

Knowing what’s important gives food manufacturers the necessary information to formulate a meaningful narrative and present it to potential new hires. Companies must then take the next step and deliver that narrative, according to Flood.

Tell your story

People Future 2025 found students focus on companies they know about. Like most people, students usually find out about a company because of its story, and because there is something special about that story that makes it stand out. Companies need to find their uniqueness, attributes and all things driving potential employees to want to work with them.

Everyone might appreciate the history of a company, the principles and actions that got it where it is, but People Future 2025’s research shows students in the job market want to know a company’s present identity and outlook. In addition, processors and manufacturers should showcase their qualities to students through product experience and product impact on the world.

Attracting support positions also means catering a story to specific audiences. For example, when addressing students studying information technology-related disciplines, company representatives should showcase their company’s advancements in technology and discuss recent marketplace innovations with those studying business and marketing. Too many companies focus only on what they make and sell, and not on the amazing journey and careers that support their vision.

Additional keys to attracting students through company narrative include talking about talent development; sharing unique elements of compensation; sharing positive impacts the company has on its immediate and local communities; and using terminology and language that potential employees will relate to.

Earlier exposure

Through its research, the IFMA Foundation found that students decide which industry they will work in and which companies they will pursue employment at earlier in the process. Companies must invest time to create awareness and identify students early, then tell the story they’ve crafted.

Early engagement provides companies time to build relationships with those who might become part of the company story. According to IFMA, 32 percent of all students choose the careers they want to pursue while attending high school. Other companies and industries already realize this and are influencing student decisions well before they enter college. Food manufacturers must become influencers if they intend to compete for talent, Flood says.

Food industry employers can make early engagement high quality as well. At the high school level, quality engagement at area schools might include the usual tables at career fairs, but companies can add facility tours and open houses to show students what happens, what support roles at the company do day to day and how it can be enjoyable, fun and fulfilling. At the college level, internships are key. Offering underclassmen internships exposes them initially, but making them longer-term interns, such as several summers or a full year for credit, encourages immersion with the company.

Flood preaches that influencing through early engagement is an investment with long-term return. It doesn’t happen immediately, but the organizations that make the commitment and stay the course will begin to see a payoff with a pool of talent available and vetted in as little as three to four years.

John Flood (left) and Hugh Roth, senior vice president, chief customer and business development officer for PepsiCo Global Foodservice and chairman of the IFMA Education Foundation, speak at the 2018 IfMA Presidents Conference. Source: IFMA

Engagement matters

Engaging prospective students at a deeper level complements the previous earlier exposure. The deeper level consists of all the places a student relies on to search for career guidance, but it’s more than a pamphlet in the career counseling office. Organizations dedicated to recruiting the best talent deliberately create exposure for themselves by engaging at multiple touch points.

On- and off-site events such as luncheons and dinners, and company tours, as well as guest lectures across disciplines open multiple points of contact to engage potential employees. Mentorships with alumni could provide engagement with quality students at the deepest one-to-one level. The lighter version without alumni participation would be companies building relationships with college department heads, committees and academic and social clubs.

A partnership between foodservice companies in difficult-to-recruit areas such as Buffalo, New York, and Niagara Univ., provides a great example of working together to create a pipeline for talent. Coming together the group worked to create a degree educating students specifically for the industry. Niagara Univ.’s Food Marketing Center of Excellence had 40 students in the Food Marketing Degree Program last year, and the Buffalo area now has a locally based pipeline to students with a food marketing specific education.

Cast a wider net

Some companies feel experience in the food manufacturing industry, or a food industry specific education is a necessity when recruiting and hiring the next management and supporting role employee. These criteria certainly have advantages but are far from necessary to get the best fit for a food industry company.

The 2018 IFMA Education Foundation sponsored survey showed only 2 percent of college students were majoring in a hospitality-related field while 21 percent were some sort of business major. Companies must consider and engage all fields of study and invest in training to ensure retention.

“We’ve learned a lot by having the deans of the business school and the hospitality schools on our committee,” Flood says. “We learned from them how other industries hire. Our competition is not other meat and poultry companies, it’s other industries that people are electing to go and work in. So, the pipeline is already very narrow, and everyone is trying to get the same employees.”

Any strategies for recruiting and hiring in today’s world must address the need for diversity, Flood says. Diversity in talent, diversity in thinking, and an openness to change all give companies the best possible chance to stay connected and evolve in their understanding of the food manufacturing industry.

Tougher and tougher

According to Flood, patience and planning pay big dividends when it comes to recruitment and hiring. Long-term investments with delayed returns are often the hardest investments to make. However, when the returns begin to come in, they are often the most valuable. That is the case when investing in a talent acquisition strategy, rather than viewing hiring new employees as a task. Creating a talent pool with a pipeline of potential hires is a must have for any organization’s longevity and continued growth. To find a good fit and retain that quality talent will not become easier in the future.