Help Wanted

January 1, 2002
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Are you a self-starter with three years experience in deboning poultry? Do you have outstanding leadership ability? Are you promotable? Bilingual?

If so, then Bob Leicht, owner of Management Services Employment Consultants, wants you. His client, a poultry firm, is seeking a Debone Superintendent for a plant in Ohio. In addition to a competitive salary and benefits, this particular company offers an attractive relocation package. A client of Leicht's in Georgia is seeking a poultry Par Fry Supervisor, preferably with one to three years frying experience, although "fully cooked experience" will also suffice. Another of Leicht's clients, a poultry firm in North Carolina, seeks an Evisceration Superintendent with 3-plus years experience. Once again, proven leadership ability is a plus.

And so it goes.

Leicht, who is based in Evans, Ga., left a management position in manufacturing five years ago to pursue a career as a headhunter for food processors. Although he had never worked in food, he reasoned that that like the marines, the industry was always looking for a few good men. "You know the saying: People have to eat," he says.

His career as headhunter is keeping Leicht fed, but he admits to seeing fewer job orders these days. Even an industry as recession-proof as food is apparently feeling the pinch of a softening economy. According to Houston-based Industrial Information Resources, excess capacity is becoming a problem for some sectors, notably grain and meat, as a result of declining foreign demand. The recent spate of mergers and acquisitions among food companies is also dampening employment prospects somewhat, in some cases prompting plant closings or consolidations.

New era, same problem

Still, Leicht says, he has job orders to fill. And ironically, the problem is much the same as he encountered during the '90s, when unemployment levels flirted with historic lows. "With the economy as shaky as it is, good folks are staying put. As a result, we're seeing fewer qualified applicants." There's another old saying Leicht is probably familiar with: "The more things change..."

One thing that hasn't stayed the same is Leicht's method of recruiting qualified job applicants. In just five years, he observed, the Internet has had a tremendous impact in locating prospective employees. He says it has become routine to post clients' notices on all the major job boards ? Monster.com, Hotjobs.com -- and to scour those same sites for potential candidates. Leicht has also begun using a recently launched site dedicated specifically to food processing, Careersinfood.com.

Careersinfood proprietor Wade Palmer, whose pioneering site is already receiving 600,000 hits per month and is visited monthly by 36,000 unique users, has worked as a headhunter in processing for 26 years. For a long stretch in the '90s, he recalls, "it was nearly impossible to find good people" for many of the positions he assisted in filling. With today's market is neither as robust as it was two years ago nor as depressed as it was in the early '90s, "the food industry has reached something of a happy medium," he observes.

Even so, the evolution of the food recruitment industry reflects the increasing complexity of processing operations and the attendant challenges of staffing them with qualified employees, even in favorable job markets. Palmer recalls that the majority of headhunters were generalists and remained so until the 1980s, when they began homing in on certain specialized sectors, including food. The trend accelerated in the 1990s, a period in which technology and government changed the face of many processing operations. While automation eventually eliminated many jobs from plant rosters in the '90s, it also placed greater demands on positions that remained. Tighter regulation of safety and sanitation practices, the changing complexion of the U.S. workforce and new organizational models likewise raised the bar for plant employees.

The result is that processors today often require a higher caliber job candidate. "I would say that [college] degree consciousness is certainly increasing," Palmer said. "Bilingual skills are also highly desirable--it's a requirement for nearly half the job orders that we post today. And obviously experience with automation is very important ? particularly PLCs, maintenance, sanitation...It's difficult bringing someone in without that kind of knowledge. Team-based management skills are nearly universally embraced these days. There's a lot of demand for employees who have worked in that kind of culture."

Whether processors find them often depends on the scope and intensity of their search. Both Palmer and Leicht agreed that large, well-capitalized processors ? the Krafts and Coca-Colas of the world ? have the least trouble finding candidates, since they are regarded as highly desirable employers and have fairly significant budgets for recruitment. A case in point is Mother Parkers Tea & Coffee Inc., the largest provider of coffee and tea to the Canadian foodservice industry and recipient of Food Engineering's Plant of the Year award, for a 100,000-sq.-ft. greenfield facility it constructed in the Fort Worth, Texas. To staff the highly automated coffee roasting plant with multi-skilled control-room operators and quality-assurance technicians, Mother Parkers recruited from other well-automated food manufacturers, both from within and outside the Fort Worth area, according to plant manager Dennis Paynter, who related the tale to attendees of Food Engineering's Plant Tech Conference last summer. Besides offering attractive wage rates, Mother Parkers advertised in Dallas/Fort Worth newspapers, held job fairs and sought assistance from the Texas Workforce Commission. As a result, the company received about 3,500 resumes for 60 positions.

Palmer observed that websites, headhunters, employment fees and other recruitment expenses are way of life for most large processors and, as such, are routinely factored into "rather significant budgets for recruiting qualified employees." However, for small and mid-size firms, "headhunters are usually the last people they call," he observed. His website has had its greatest success with those same firms. "That's where we have out niche," he said, explaining that the economics of using an Internet job board are well suited to the budgets of these companies. Access to the site for manufacturers is $250 per month, for recruiters $150 per month. By comparison, headhunters often charge hefty employment fees, usually a percentage of the candidate's first year of salary.

What makes employees happy?

Palmer acknowledged that larger firms are generally more likely to promote from within, and often have the training and educational programs in place to do so. Preliminary results from Food Engineering's upcoming Best Practices Survey, to be published in February, indicate that the employers of some 29 percent of respondents provide on-site classroom training at their plant facilities, while 11 percent of companies provide off-site classroom training at community colleges. Nearly 20 percent of companies provide on-site or off-site vendor training programs. However, the effectiveness of these programs in attracting or retaining employees may not be as great as is generally believed. When asked what methods or incentives at plant locations were most useful in recruiting or retaining employees, only 13 percent of survey respondents indicated "technical or professional training programs." While another 24 percent either indicated "improved promotion abilities" or "training partnerships with colleges or universities," the survey found that bread-and-butter benefits such as bonus programs, savings/investment programs, good benefits and sound management communications exerted a significantly greater pull. Intangibles such as flexible or improved working conditions also fared better than programs presumably designed to groom employees for advancement at their current locations, or at the locations of future prospective employers.

One exception is pay-for-skills programs, which appear to be proliferating among food processors. The premise of such programs is simple: Employees are paid according to the skills they have mastered, either as a result of on-the-job training or some other means. Nearly one-third of respondents to this year's Best Practices survey indicated that pay-for-skills programs were as highly useful in attracting and recruiting employees ? roughly the same percentage that endorsed benefits, bonuses, savings/investment programs and other more conventional means.

It's worth noting that other studies have yielded results almost diametrically opposed to the Best Practices Study. For instance, a recent survey of 198 food companies by TR Cutler, Inc., a Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.-based marketing firm, found that an overwhelming 64 percent of respondents believed that providing ongoing professional development was the most effective means of retaining employees. Money/bonuses, benefits, increased vacation time and other incentives all trailed a distant second.

Undoubtedly all of these variables factor into the recruitment/retention equation in one way or another. However, if a lack of qualified labor is indeed an issue with processors, even in more favorable markets, there is a compelling case to be made for implementing some form of training either on or off site. Although several food-related associations provide training courses, few can rival the American Institute of Baking (AIB) in terms of sheer breadth. Resident courses, seminars, certification programs, correspondence courses, video courses ? the Manhattan, Kans.-based AIB offers them all. True, several of these courses are industry specific ? e.g. Advanced Bread and Roll Production; Laminated and Sweet Dough Production ? but just as many are applicable to a plethora of processing environments. Among them are courses in Basic Food Processing Sanitation; HACCP; Fundamentals of Programmable Controllers; Refrigeration Technology; Warehousing. The list goes on.

AIB vice president of education Kirk O'Donnell said most AIB students tend to be older and have at least some food industry experience. AIB's mission, he said, is to "provide a professional environment where interested people can come for a relatively short period of time and then go back and practice what they've learned." He noted while many students are aware of standard practices, they don't necessarily understand their philosophical, regulatory or scientific underpinnings. Once they've learned them, they can return to their jobs and begin asking more informed questions. "Ideally, we're giving people the freedom to be more innovative in their work ? to find ways of lowering costs and increasing quality," O'Donnell said.

He related that it isn't necessarily employees of larger food companies that attend AIB's courses. "Unfortunately, many companies look at engineering as overhead and, as such, don't have a real eagerness to invest in the education of those folks," he said. "These are often the same companies that go out and make huge capital investments in equipment. What's missing is the training to maintain and maximize the life of that equipment. I tell the management staffs of those companies that a one-week course for $1,000 will pay for itself in one month in terms of saved downtime. Because without proper training, you can bet that particular piece of machinery is going to go down."

Training Sources

The Chicago-based Institute of Food Technology (IFT) offers a wide range of educational programs and seminars at varying locations throughout the U.S. Although the courses are ostensibly designed for the scientific community, many of them cover areas of importance to all food processors, such as "Practical Approaches to Food Safety," "Food Laws & Regulations," and "Sanitizers and Cleaning Agents." IFT is also a good source of information about food-related undergraduate and graduate programs in the U.S.

Processors shouldn't overlook the possibility of developing training or workforce development plans of their own, or in conjunction with other area suppliers, community colleges, federal state and local agencies; trade associations; unions and suppliers. To help member companies recruit and train new employees, AIB applied for a U.S. Department of Labor Grant to fund a pilot program in one city to recruit prospective bakers, develop training programs to fill their skill gaps and place them as interns with bakery companies. Assuming the pilot succeeded, the intent was to extend the program to the nations 10 largest population centers. AIB didn't receive the grant, but ended up developing a baking curriculum for the party that did: a consortium of labor unions in the New York area. Similarly, the Eastern Washington Agriculture and Food Processing Partnership, which includes five community colleges, four workforce development organizations, two unions, two trade associations, and one community-based organization, is currently developing a training system to fill entry-level gaps in the areas of GMPs, job safety, food safety, problem solving and consumer expectations.

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