Sources of baking workforce gap and solutions

“Gone are the days of paying enough” to attract an adequately staffed workforce for the baking industry, said Cory Martin, director of government relations at the American Bakers Association.

In a presentation Oct. 10 at the International Baking Industry Exposition in Las Vegas, Mr. Martin discussed sources of the workforce gap plaguing the baking industry as well as promising solutions.

The remarks were built around a report commissioned earlier this year by the A.B.A. and A.S.B., “The Workforce Gap in U.S. Commercial Baking: Trends, Challenges and Solutions.” The study was conducted by Cypress Associates, Kansas City.

Underpinning the challenges facing bakers are unprecedented demographic dynamics. At present, five different demographic generations — silent generation, baby boomers, Gen X, millennials  and Gen Z — all are in the workforce at the same time.

A principal challenge for baking has been reconciling the life-work balance sought by millennials, the largest workforce cohort, with the demanding nature of baking industry work, Mr. Martin said.

As a rule, Mr. Martin counseled bakers to find ways to be flexible to accommodate workforce dynamics, to expect further change ahead and to recognize no “one size fits all” or magic bullet solution exists.

“Without putting people in a box, bakers need to be adaptable to the needs of different generations,” Mr. Martin said.

The survey showed more than three quarters of bakers said they face a high shortage or severe shortage of hourly skilled maintenance/engineering workers.

That figure actually has held fairly steady for the last several years, Mr. Martin said. Compounding matters, though, has been a worsening problem in other categories of baking employees. For instance 40% of respondents said there was a shortage of machine operators and 59% cited a shortage of salaried engineering/maintenance employees.

Because millennials are not motivated by money as much as earlier generations, higher pay does not represent a quick fix, Mr. Martin said. He noted that baking companies already pay more on average than typical manufacturing companies, but again, for certain segments, that is not enough.

The difficulties facing bakers are worsening. The lack of formal training for workers and the steadily rising bar created by advances in baking technology have widened the gap between what bakers need and what they have been able to find.

Expanding on the challenges baking companies face, Mr. Martin said the long hours plants operate create a hurdle at the outset. Other retention factors the survey said contribute to retention challenges include understaffing on the production floor and undertrained first-line supervisors.

Among suggested steps from Mr. Martin was the creation of partnerships between bakers and area state schools to help recruit. While this approach requires considerable effort on the part of bakers, the return on investment is high. Schools are looking to be sure the curriculum they create is correct, and strong partnerships help create a steady talent pipeline for bakers. For its part, the A.B.A. intends to become a clearinghouse for information about the most effective such partnerships or other recruitment tools.

Recruiting through social media has become more important than ever, Mr. Martin said. He noted that millennials and those in Gen Z overwhelmingly depend on social media for their information.

Other incremental solutions recommended in the Cypress report include improving an on-boarding process, focusing on enhancing the work environment/culture, formal first-line supervisor training, the use of contingent (part-time/temporary) workers and a formal employee recognition program.

While modifying work hours in order to reduce stress would be very beneficial, Mr. Martin acknowledged “this is not easy to do.” Action is still required.

“We have major retention issues in this industry, and if we do nothing, it will just get worse,” he said.

The A.B.A. is working to do its part to help lessen the problem, Mr. Martin said. In particular, the group is developing a branding campaign to help draw Gen Z employers to the baking industry. Bakers, similarly, need to review how they market their companies.

For example, he said a weak spot for bakers is communicating to employees the monetary value of company’s non-wage/salary benefits.

He explained, “Even more, what does your company do to benefit the community? What do you to benefit the world? You need to be telling your story.”