Keith Nunes 2019KANSAS CITY — The COVID-19 pandemic has upended so many aspects of the food business, beginning with what people eat, where they buy their food and where they consume it. Building blocks of the production side have been rattled during this period, including the reliability of inputs and, perhaps most troublesome, the availability of a dependable labor force. Most, if not all, employers are struggling to attract and retain skilled and unskilled employees. Better wages and benefits have helped, but it is clear employers must do more if they hope to fill their ranks.

Tyson Foods’ recent announcement it will offer childcare programs at two of its processing facilities is an example. The company plans to build a $3.5 million on-site childcare and learning center at its new Humboldt, Tenn., poultry complex. In addition, Tyson Foods said it will work with local childcare providers near its Amarillo, Texas, beef processing plant to offer free childcare to its second-shift workers.

Tyson’s initiative is a response to severe disruptions in the childcare industry in the United States due to COVID-19. Childcare providers that have continued to operate have had to raise rates significantly to cover the higher per-child costs because of the need to assign fewer children per caretaker because of the necessity of social distancing. Due to the higher costs, some families have found it makes more economic sense for one parent to stay home and care for children full time than to have two parents working and pay for childcare.

Most, if not all, employers are struggling to attract and retain skilled and unskilled employees. 

Most companies do not have the resources of Tyson Foods and would find it impractical to undertake such an initiative, but other benefits prospective employees may find attractive merit consideration. A joint study recently released by the American Bakers Association (ABA) and the American Society of Baking (ASB) looked at workforce recruitment for commercial baking and may provide guidance. The study, which included 70 companies, found 53% faced a high or severe shortage in skilled production, unskilled production and transportation workers in 2021. Many of those surveyed expected the shortage to last for years, with half of respondents saying they expected driver shortages to last into 2027 and 58% predicting the same for maintenance and engineering jobs.

Marjorie Hellmer, president of Cypress Research, the research firm that conducted the ABA/ASB baking industry workforce study, said while most baking employers offer competitive benefits and starting salaries for hourly skilled and unskilled production positions, only about half offer consecutive days off, and only about a third offer flexible schedules.

“While concepts like workplace flexibility can be challenging when applying them to the production floor, I expect that (bakery employer) strategies are going to get bolder in order to keep talent in commercial baking,” she said. “Conversations around cross-training teams, developing pilot programs to test alternative ways of working and gathering input from employees and managers in the pilot to encourage buy-in and to create effective and sustainable programs, are all critical steps to attracting and retaining new generations of bakery team members.”

In January 2020, the labor participation rate in the United States stood at 63.4%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Nearly two years later, in November 2021, the participation rate remained below pre-pandemic levels at 61.8%. The supply of workers remains well below demand, and employers must continue to think creatively about what they can do to attract and retain employees who are essential to all food and beverage businesses.