WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W. VA. — Paths should be explored to allow employers to hire certain able-bodied individuals in the United States who currently lack documentation or residency status that would allow them to work, said Eric Dell, president and chief executive officer, American Bakers Association. Mr. Dell said worsening labor shortages pose a potential future threat to US food security.

In a presentation Oct. 6 before the North American Millers’ Association, Mr. Dell offered an update on new ways the ABA is thinking about possible solutions for what has been its top organizational priority — helping companies find enough workers to keep baking operations running. The presentation was part of NAMA’s annual meeting, held Oct. 5-7 at The Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs.

Mr. Dell said the baking industry’s persistent difficulty in making meaningful progress against this issue has prompted its board to press for aggressive steps. A shift of more of the US workforce to remote work, something that isn’t possible for most bakery workers, and consistently low unemployment have exacerbated conditions for many employers looking for staff.

“We have tried to play (in the past) without sticking a stake in the ground and taking a hard stance,” Mr. Dell said. “Our board is now pushing.”

The worker shortage ought to be cast as a food security issue, Mr. Dell said, warning that the United States could become reliant on imported food if it does not have enough workers to keep plants operating and supermarket shelves filled. In fact, there are plenty of would-be workers currently living in the United States who would love to fill open positions at baking and other food production plants, he said.

“There are a lot of people in this country who want to work, and we want to hire them if we can,” Mr. Dell said. “A lot of them are in the system, and the paperwork process is working very slowly. We don’t know the solutions, but we know one thing. We have people who want to work, and we want to employ those people the right way. We are going to be active. I did not say the word immigration. It’s about workforce. It’s about food supply. If you don’t have workers, we can’t feed this country. We have a food supply issue. We have a food security issue.”

Later in his presentation, Mr. Dell underscored the problem and the food security threat by unveiling new data showing bakers are on a path to have 53,500 unfilled jobs by the year 2030.

“Based on numbers from the National Association of Manufacturers, this is what is expected to be the shortfall in the workforce,” he said. “This is a food security issue. We are tackling this workforce issue on the Hill. We are trying to get good data to share with our legislators, our regulators to say, ‘We need help.’ It’s about hiring folks who want to work. We need a solution for this problem.”

Expanding on the data, Mr. Dell said the impact of 53,000 unfilled baking jobs would have major ripple effects, leading to 148,000 total forgone jobs, $9.7 billion in forgone wages, $36.2 billion in forgone output and $3.3 billion in direct taxes forgone.

Leaning aggressively into the workforce issue is part of a cultural change Mr. Dell said the ABA is looking to achieve in order to become more effective regarding a range of issues.

“For too long, the food industry in general has been more defensive in nature when it comes to regulation,” he said. “We get this posture of big bad food companies. I’ve been really trying to change that message, and I think it’s been changing over the last two years, to be very forward leaning, doing the right thing on issues, and not always saying no.”

Beyond looking for ways to tap into the pool of the US population unable to apply for work, Mr. Dell said bakers need to incorporate automation into their operations.

He continued, “I’m telling our folks, ‘Automate, automate, automate. Be competitive. This is another point we keep telling them. If you don’t automate, you may not have the staff you need.”

Offering a further update on the “State of the ABA,” Mr. Dell said the group’s membership is at the highest level in recent history. The number of baking companies that belong to the organization has increased by 50% over the past four years, with particular growth in companies that are not bread and roll bakers, he said.

“We’ve had real growth on the sweet goods side,” he said. “Diversifying quite a bit. People say, ‘You’re just bread, buns and rolls.’ I say, ‘No, no, no we’re not. We’re everything.’ Over 50% of our members, 53%, bake something other than bread, buns or rolls.”

He noted the ABA recently has updated its data on the impact of the baking industry on the US economy. The industry has added about 25,000 jobs since 2020 with a workforce currently estimated at 789,000.

Discussing regulatory issues that are priorities for the ABA, Mr. Dell said the group was continuing to go through a necessary process of “honing down the issues” it takes on to ensure “we are making headway on the most important ones.”

Offering two examples of ABA activity on the regulatory front, Mr. Dell said alleviating challenges bakers have faced since sesame was declared the ninth major allergen by the Food and Drug Administration has been a major priority.

“It is too difficult for bakers to clean bakery lines between product runs,” Mr. Dell said.

In pursuit of practical solutions, the ABA has reached out to a diverse group — Center for Science and the Public Interest, the FDA and Congress. He said bakers are pursuing an opportunity for a “may contain” disclaimer on packaging and/or a manageable tolerance threshold.

More recently, the ABA has become involved in efforts to address a new proposed rule from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The OSHA rule would allow third parties to participate in Workplace Walkaround Inspections. Potential participants cited by OSHA include “community activists and union representatives.”

For many reasons, including the safety of participants in walkarounds, the ABA has serious concerns about the proposal, Mr. Dell said.