The food industry is the oasis in a manufacturing desert. As fewer sectors have reported job growth within the past year, food manufacturing has seen a boost in opportunity with one (slight) issue: we’ve got the jobs but not the people to fill them.
According to a 2018 Deloitte Insights manufacturing study, an estimated 2.4 million job vacancies are said to occur between 2018 and 2028, largely due to retiring Baby Boomers and an improving economy. Currently, the unemployment rate within food manufacturing has steadily risen from 3.2 percent in December 2018 to 5.7 percent in March 2019, while overall employment has seen a small uptick, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
This impending shortage of workers is an issue occurring in tandem with several other innovations within the food industry, including automation. Yet, these technological opportunities alone aren’t enough to generate interest in a younger working audience, nor are they displacing everyone. After attending the 2019 Food Automation and Manufacturing (FA&M) conference, we believe that replacing a generation of workers requires breaking through misconceptions about manufacturing.
Misconceptions and mixed perceptions
A 2019 Leading2Lean perceptions survey found that 70 percent of Americans believe manufacturing is in decline despite quadrupling job openings since 2009 (i.e. 477,000 job openings in February 2019 as compared to 112,000 in January 2009, according to the BLS). Deloitte published a similar perceptual survey in 2017, and one positive insight still holds true: a majority (83 percent surveyed) of Americans believe that “manufacturing is vital” for the economy. This sentiment is shared by 79 percent of Leading2Lean respondents two years later.
Yet, conflicting beliefs occur between these two surveys. Both sets of participants understand that automation will play a crucial role in transforming labor in manufacturing, but to what extent is not understood. While Deloitte explains that manufacturers are making concerted efforts to create cooperative robots (“co-bots”) to assist low-skilled positions, 54 percent of millennials in the Leading2Lean study believe robotics will replace all U.S. manufacturing jobs.
Note, however, that manufacturing according to the BLS covers a large variety of sectors, including (and certainly not limited to) metallics, food, textiles and apparel. Hence, the consumer perceptions about manufacturing outlined by Deloitte and Leading2Lean are generalized sentiments, yet nonetheless crucial for gauging interest in specific sectors.
Inviting millennials to the work space
So, what is there to do to guide a new generation of workers toward manufacturing? And what can the food manufacturing sector do to affect growth in our own arena?
According to the same Leading2Lean study, nearly 50 percent of millennials believe manufacturing can offer fulfilling careers, thus manufacturers should consider the glass half full. Innovations toward automation in food manufacturing can help ease younger participants into food processing positions, especially those graduating from STEM programs.
Additionally, the fact that college-aged individuals eligible for work are exceeding the national labor force participation rate (71 percent for ages 20-24 years, as compared to a national 63 percent) indicates a positive trend toward millennial and Gen Z hires: younger generations are certainly available to work and take on the labor share of their predecessors.
The introduction of automation in food manufacturing generates another set of educative opportunities. Deloitte says that developing apprenticeship programs can help a younger generation understand how retirees started their careers and how they’ve come to adopt automation. Community outreach, investment on vocational training and high school robotics programs like FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) certainly help to generate interest in manufacturing with a focus on the future.
Filling positions with promotions
A new generation of labor is only one part of filling manufacturing positions. Remember that between your veteran employees and incoming millennials, you have middle children to take care of. Dedicating resources to uptraining current employees on automation can help quell concerns that workers will require an education.
Processors must keep a strategy in mind with the implementation of automation. Although Deloitte mentioned the role of supplemental co-bots to lower-skilled roles, the institute also highlighted how automation is simultaneously being used to fill these same positions. Note, however, that automation in any form requires human intervention, from installation to maintenance. Introducing such technology must be done deliberately, with consideration given to the effect on the operations as well as the operators.
Regardless of whatever challenges you’re facing with your current operations, offer continuous communication as part of your company’s education efforts. Seek feedback from younger employees and add new avenues for internships, certification programs and—most importantly—help with career development.
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