AMELIA ISLAND, FLA. — Finding new ways to ease labor tightness is the top priority for the baking industry, and the American Bakers Association is committed to being a leader in finding a practical solution, said ABA chair Cordia Harrington. The ABA will collaborate with the broader food and beverage community to help employers navigate this complex issue, she said.

Ms. Harrington, who is chief executive officer of Crown Bakeries, Brentwood, Tenn., spoke about the labor initiative in an interview conducted during the ABA annual meeting held March 26-29 at the Ritz-Carlton Amelia Island Resort and Club.

As has been the case in the past, the ABA at its annual meeting offered unconventional channels for bakers to seek employees. Yaron Schwartz, director for the US at the Tent Partnership for Refugees, gave a presentation at the meeting providing attendees with information on hiring foreign refugees living in the United States as a potential recruitment pool for their businesses.

More far-reaching initiatives will be explored. Eric Dell, the new president and CEO of the ABA, has said labor concerns will be addressed when the group conducts a strategic planning process this fall.

“He’s a collaborator. I’m a collaborator,” she said. “Together, we are thinking big. How can our industry be a leader in making a difference, not only for our industry members but for the greater good of our industry and our country? We will also work together with the broader food and beverage community in DC to partner where possible. There is strength in numbers and it’s better to be together than apart.”

Among about 50 board members and others in attendance at the ABA board of directors meeting, nearly all identified workforce issues as the challenge most likely to keep them up at night, Ms. Harrington said.  

“It doesn’t matter if you’re a small business or a big business,” she said. “It doesn’t matter whether you are in California or in New York. It’s affecting all of us. We have to take that seriously. It’s affecting our customers. It’s affecting everyone.”

The board is strongly behind efforts to address the issue, Ms. Harrington said.

Notwithstanding the labor issues, Ms. Harrington identified numerous positives in the baking industry right now.

“Thankfully, I think the health of the industry is very good,” she said. “Sales are good. People are eating out more. Our customers are seeing increases. We are a necessary industry, and I’m thankful for that.”

Bottom lines have been adversely affected because of COVID, supply chain issues and a shortage of labor, she added.

“We need to remove some of the barriers so that the bottom line can improve in the same way that the top line is improving,” she added.

The past year has been a busy one for the ABA, which now has a new CEO and a new meeting to organize.

“There has been a tremendous amount of change over the course of the past year at the ABA,” she said. “We completed a search for a new CEO that involved many of the members of the board of directors in interviews. It was very collaborative and very exciting. We had over 67 candidates, and they were fantastic. But we were very fortunate to hire Eric Dell.”

Around the time of the leadership succession, which occurred Jan. 1, Ms. Harrington said the ABA’s volunteer leadership helped the staff continue to execute. The success of their efforts was demonstrated at the annual meeting by attendance that included 85 registrants attending their first ABA annual meeting, she said. Total attendance of 530 was more than 50 greater than in any recent year, she said.

Also during the past year, the ABA decided to join BEMA as a partner in the NEXUS conference to be held Sept. 25-28 in Dallas. The partnership was announced last September at IBIE 2022 Baking Expo.

“When you are trying to invent a new industry event, it takes a lot of thought, a lot of planning, a lot of collaboration,” Ms. Harrington said.

The NEXUS concept was unveiled by BEMA last spring at the group’s annual meeting, and Ms. Harrington said it was there the ABA recognized “it was something we definitely wanted to be involved with.”

Since then, a decision has been made to move ABA’s fall board meeting to be in Dallas in conjunction with NEXUS. Other ABA and allied meetings also will be held during the event, together with special programming.

“We believe the more we pull the industry together, the stronger we will be,” Ms. Harrington said. “BEMA had the dream. We are thankful to come alongside them and co-sponsor with them.”

Noting that NEXUS will be held in IBIE off years, Ms. Harrington said IBIE 2022 Baking Expo, held Sept. 17-22, 2022, was a great success.

“IBIE was fabulous,” she said. I “felt education was top notch. Participation was high. I don’t know how we could have asked for a better IBIE.”