The employee engagement challenge: hiring, training and retaining key staff
US food and beverage plants are looking in house, on campus, online and at third parties to fill their engineering staff needs as industry advances loom.
According to Facts About Modern Manufacturing, a report produced jointly by the Manufacturing Institute, the Manufacturer’s Alliance for Productivity and Innovationand the National Association of Manufacturers, engineering degrees in the United States account for just 4.4 percent of total first university degrees.
This lags significantly behind other developed nations such as Germany and Japan which report their shares of engineering graduates at 12.4 percent and 17.1 percent respectively. “By any interpretation, the US has a considerable challenge with its engineering workforce,” according to the report, published in October 2012 and updated in January of this year.
The adoption of lean principles and practices by numerous companies engaged in food manufacturing, following the sharp economic recession in 2008 and protracted recovery, coupled with an ever-increasing requirement for technological advancement, has placed a premium on finding talent either as new hires or to fill the shoes of recent retirees.
For the food manufacturing industry, finding agricultural, biological, chemical, electrical, environmental, life-science, mechanical, packaging or process engineers with the talent or ambition to work in this sector is even more limited as few schools include food science in their course curricula.
“We are having a tough time getting experienced talent recruited into the company for positions requiring five to seven years in the manufacturing industry,” says Gregory Lisso, senior director of engineering at J.R. Simplot. “The most difficult engineering positions to fill are senior level project engineer and any level of packaging engineer.” The firm often looks for people with in-demand automation expertise that covers control logic skills, PLC and servo motors, and experience with power generation processes like steam.
Lisso says a fairly strong food industry, despite the economy, makes it tougher to draw experienced talent away from other companies, and the limited number of schools offering packaging engineering as a discipline limits the number of new hire candidates. The lack of available engineering talent is especially troubling for Simplot since it is expanding capabilities through new plant construction, technological upgrades to older facilities and business acquisitions.
To solve its engineering problem, Simplot has initiated an innovative management trainee program, hiring talent into the organization, even when a suitable position isn’t open. “We may not have titled positions for them, but we’ve determined they have excellent skills and are the right fit for our company,” says Lisso. Management trainees are put in different parts of the company where they learn the business while waiting for the right position to open up through attrition or growth.
In addition, Simplot has established an internship program directed at new engineering graduates. Part of the company strategy is to always have two to three vacancies open in the program year-round. Engineering staff already onboard can take advantage of an in-house professional development program to pursue continuing education related to their field or take part in a Six Sigma course.
According to Jim Prunesti, vice president of global engineering at The Campbell Soup Company, it is evident the engineering resource pool is shrinking. “I’ve looked at data that shows the amount of people leaving the engineering force due to retirements is greater than the amount of engineers coming out of school. Even if our engineering team gains additional resources through company acquisition, the additional resources often times has a heavy work load and is supporting their own projects.”
Campbell’s continually commissions projects of various types that require engineering expertise. “There are growth projects where we add capacity to meet demand; savings projects where investments are made to improve cost structure and may be automation or speed related; regulatory projects designed to meet a quality standard or environmental requirement; or a safety project where we invest to provide a safer place for our employees. Engineering staff is critical to each project type,” says Prunesti.
The processor leverages its staffing needs with outside engineering firms, a model common in the food industry, Prunesti states, whereby a certain percentage of in-house resources focuses on core competencies and critical technologies while external resources manage more common aspects such as building works or infrastructure systems.
New engineering hires, training and retention are supported by peer and career mentoring. “The reality is that when a new hire comes into the workplace, the teams they become a part of are not only multi-cultural but multi-generational and multi-experienced. Some team members are tech savvy, and others are old school wise, so the challenge is how to achieve and maintain a high level of productive collaboration,” says Prunesti.
Informal coaching or mentoring involves connecting a new hire with a team member or someone outside of engineering who can provide perspective for or partner with the new employee to help him or her navigate challenges. Along with formalized training, this helps to build interpersonal relationships between the baby boomers, generations X and Y and the newest generation of graduates called millennials, says Prunesti. This is extremely important as each age group may embrace different work ethics.
Campbell’s wants its employees to feel like asset owners. “We focus on training and building operational readiness; if you do not train from the outset, think about the performance of the line after install. Without it, you are at risk to run more unfavorably because you have sunken costs that can impact your bottom line. Helping to build collaboration upfront makes everyone involved the first line of defense on machine performance, process excellence and product quality,” says Prunesti.
Karl L. Linck has spent 38 years as an engineer in the food processing industry, currently working as vice president of engineering for Sargento Foods Inc. For Linck, finding and training engineers is a major project. “I got my start at Kraft Foods armed with a general engineering degree, coming up through the maintenance side of the organization which exposed me to a lot of technology, equipment and processes.” Subsequently, Linck moved into corporate operations at Kraft and worked in on projects varying greatly in size and complexity.
“I was fortunate because I worked in a large company and could move around and pick up a lot,” he says, adding that it is more common for a food processing firm today to farm out its engineering. This leaves new arrivals with less opportunity to learn, and according to Linck, “they come out of school with the basics, but they have no real knowledge of how to handle food. There is a real need to have people understand things from the food science side. There is some complacency in the food industry with trial and error or overdesign, and we just can’t rely on those methods anymore.”
Although attempts are made to pass on the knowledge base from more experienced engineers to fresh recruits as they come into Sargento, incoming engineers need the basics in a structured educational environment to truly understand the best practices and how theory meets reality in the food industry.
Linck spent two years researching educational programs that provided some link to food science or food processing, landing on a distance learning course that offers advanced degrees (Master of Engineering and Master of Science) or certificate with emphasis in food engineering (for those who a have a bachelor degree in engineering) or food technology (for those who do not have an engineering degree). The programs are offered the Texas A&M University at College Station, through its Department of Biological & Agricultural Engineering.
Before referring the program to his colleagues, Linck enrolled in two of the six graduate-level food engineering education courses to determine the value of their content, whether the program could be completed by someone working full-time and if the time commitment was reasonable. Linck gives both courses high marks. “The first class covered basic food operations and provided an incredibly thorough overview of what is going on in different processes, from thermal processing to deep fat frying to pumping, freezing and dehydration. It touched on every significant process.”
The second course focused on food rheology, providing instruction on different foods; how they behave when deformed or subjected to pumping, pressures, temperatures or residence times; tools and methods to measure food rheology; and how shear can destroy certain foods. “Class assignments reflected real-life food manufacturing problems,” states Linck.
The course included online PowerPoint and video instruction, along with PDF-formatted reference textbooks and access to virtual labs. Linck says the course taught him, an engineer with nearly four decades of food experience, new things. He is planning to enroll in another course and will suggest the program to new colleagues.
To view an exclusive Q&A with Texas A&M Assistant Department Head and Professor of Food Engineering Rosana Moreira, click here
Continuous improvement and problem-solving still rank highest as the most critical skills needed in food manufacturing, says Maria Ferrante, vice president of education and workforce development at PMMI, the Association for Packaging and Processing Technologies. Last year, PMMI’s Alliance for Innovation & Technical Excellence released Developing & Engaging the Manufacturing Workforce, a report examining issues surrounding locating and filling staffing positions in consumer goods manufacturing, education and training. PMMI also has developed a number of tools to help food manufacturing plants with their recruitment efforts and engage new hires as well as experienced engineers on staff. (For more information about AIOE’s Workforce Development Group, click here.)
In addition, PMMI has partnered with the Mid-Atlantic Mechatronic Advisory Council and at least 29 packaging and technical schools to develop a series of certificate programs focused on mechatronics. The program identifies four key areas as relevant to mechatronics, including mechanical, electrical, controls and computer science. According to Ferrante, industry sources determine the skills the students require, the schools provide the education needed to master the skills, and PMMI, working with an advisory council, will conduct skills assessment through testing. At present, two basic tests (Mechanical Components 1 and Industrial Electricity 1) have been completed. Basic tests for PLCs and fluid power are in the pilot stage and are expected to become available in September.
PMMI also offers a certified Train the Trainer program for engineers looking to pass on their technical skills to others. The two-day course provides training on how to transfer the knowledge or develop training programs at their plant or company.
Currently, PMMI is working with a college in Canada to further develop a program specifically focused on food processing. The association offers a basic online course on packaging machinery as well as a program that teaches risk assessment as an engineering discipline, which is offered online or as a two-day workshop. PMMI also has an online course on troubleshooting topics in food and beverage plants. The programs engage engineers and help retention, as the learning workers can make better decisions, assume authority as they go from passive to active learning and feel more valuable to the company, explains Ferrante.
Jumpstart is a new initiative where regional PMMI member groups and local CPG companies create ways to get local students more involved in food and beverage manufacturing. Ideas include hosting plant tours, developing mentoring programs, speaking at career fairs and providing economic information on the importance of food and beverage manufacturing locally. “These programs promote the concept of engagement both inside the plant with staffers and outside with the future workforce,” says Ferrante.
The demand for higher productivity in process control industries and a rise in the use of next generation technology face several challenges, among them a shortage of incoming skilled automation professionals and the impending retirement of an experienced workforce, says Jerry Spindler, customer training manager at Endress + Hauser. “Plants are being designed today with no buttons or knobs on the equipment. All adjustments to the process are centralized in a control room where the engineering operator has access to every component on the plant floor,” observes Spindler.
Endress + Hauser supplies instrumentation to a wide range of industries including food and beverage manufacturing and has found a need to offer instruction beyond the manual. “Engineers designing lines or supervisory engineers overseeing plant operations could read the manual to pick up as much as they can about our instruments on their own, but our Process Training University centers provide real-life, in-use applications,” Spindler says.
The class instruction shows how the instrumentation will perform in an actual application or installation. Instructors create problem conditions and demonstrate how the instrumentation will react if certain conditions exist or persist.
Endress + Hauser offers 12 basic and advanced product courses that focus on the skills required by the next generation of engineering staff, covering the areas of automation, controls and instrumentation. Attendees learn the features and functions of “smart” components such as digital protocols, plant asset management tools, intelligent device management and remote configuration and troubleshooting. Endress + Hauser recently added a course focusing on Profibus digital communications, which is certified by Profibus International organization. The company also is developing instruction for Foundation Fieldbus.
Endress + Hauser formed a partnership with Rockwell Automation enabling class instruction at its Process Training Unit to include its instrumentation integrated with Rockwell Automation’s PlantPAx systems, providing real-time simulation training in a “live” working environment.
Spindler says experienced controls engineers seeking instrumentation training have swelled enrollment ranks in the past year. New hires can take online courses that provide basic training on the products. Endress + Hauser instructors also deliver customized training onsite.
Operational consultancy Maverick Technologies forecasts a strong rebound in the use of new technology in food manufacturing and other industries, but cautions the “technology renaissance must overcome the reality that 40 percent of automation professionals will retire in the next five years,” says CEO Paul Galeski.
“Automation is at the heart of most major food operations, and much of how a manufacturing facility runs today is in someone’s head. That intellectual property will go out the door when the staffer retires,” cautions Galeski.
Automation is playing a larger role in food processing and packaging as companies try to gain more efficiencies on the end of the line. Galeski says he is seeing more automation that requires greater integration of equipment and more engineering skill to make upstream systems talk to downstream systems to minimize downtime and maximize efficiencies.
Yet, he says many companies cut back engineering talent around the 2008 recession and have yet to build the staff back to pre-recession levels. “If a company takes the time to invest in automation, it can gather that knowledge so the intellectual property doesn’t go away and the company owns it,” says Galeski.
Engineering staff spend more time with day-to-day operations and getting boxes out of the back door than proactively exploring ways to improve the process or marshal outside resources to implement modernization programs, says Galeski. The automating materials handling aspect of the process is where companies appear most hesitant.
Transferring the intellectual information on production line design and process efficiencies takes place through an automation project, with in-house engineers documenting how the equipment and processes work. Galeski says the process is documented then optimized, with information regarding how all pieces in the production line work at an optimum level integrated into an information enterprise that is made available to management.
Maverick educates its workforce on various food processes through its Maverick University system. It also invites and trains customers in the types of programs and training tools it offers to electrical engineers (such as instrumentation, electrical design, batch processing or packaging material handling), mechanical engineers (dairy pasteurization, clean-in-place, baking, brewing or batch processes) or process engineers (food safety, throughput or transport).
For more information:
Maria Ferrante, PMMI, 703-243-8555, firstname.lastname@example.org
Paul Galeski, Maverick Technologies, 618-281-9100, email@example.com
Rosana Moreira, Texas A&M University, 979-847-8794, firstname.lastname@example.org
Jerry Spindler, Endress+Hauser, 317-535-2106, email@example.com