Keith Nunes 2019Population growth in the United States has slowed to a trickle, according to the 2020 US Census. As a result, employers are going to find it more difficult to hire workers to grow, harvest, process, package, deliver and sell food and beverages if these trends persist.

How the census results will affect the political landscape and future federal funding initiatives was an early focus of media coverage. But for the US business community, the census is a bellwether of future workforce trends.

Based on the 2020 results, the US population is 331,449,281, up 7.4% since the 2010 census. This is the second slowest rate of population growth in US history. The slowing growth rate is due to low birth rates, reduced immigration and an aging population.

In 2019, based on the most recent data available, US women had a fertility rate of 1.7 births per woman, a new low for the past 35 years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The 2019 birth rate also is well below the rate of 2.1 births per woman, which is considered replacement needed to sustain US population levels.

Also in 2019, foreign-born workers accounted for 17.4% of the US labor force, according to the US Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). This percentage compares with 15.8% in 2010 and 13.3% in 2000. But the increasing percentage may be deceptive. Rather than showing a large influx of foreign-born workers entering the workforce, the change shows the rising number of aging baby boomers exiting the workforce. In fact, an analysis by Brookings, Washington, shows that from 2010 to 2020, the nation’s foreign-born population will experience the smallest growth of any decade since the 1970s.

If these trends continue, US companies will be challenged to find qualified workers. The issue is not going unnoticed in some sectors of food manufacturing.

Members of BEMA (formerly the Baking Equipment Manufacturers Association) ranked workforce issues only behind COVID-19 and rising input costs in a quarterly 2020 survey of members’ top concerns. Attracting and retaining a quality workforce was cited by 41% of respondents for the fourth quarter, little changed from 43% in the third quarter but a large jump from 24% in the second quarter.

The workforce topic was revisited in April during a C-Suite Virtual Roundtable held by BEMA. Automation and innovation were two themes that came up to address workforce issues. But as speakers noted, automation goes only so far toward solving the workforce issue. It may reduce staffing levels needed to complete certain tasks, but employees also are required to operate and maintain the equipment.

“People who understand controls and automation are harder to find,” said one speaker during the virtual BEMA event. “So, there are two sides to the automation equation because they are still machines that need attention.”

There is little individual companies or industries can do to alter the trajectory of population-wide workforce trends. Change will require sensible federal policies accommodating foreign-born workers and conducive to the development of larger families. Without such policies, equipment suppliers and food companies will need to develop still better, more automated processes to compensate for fewer workers.