Life is good in the food and beverage industry, at least according to Food Engineering’s 2006 Salary and Job Satisfaction Survey respondents.

Life is good in the food and beverage industry, at least according toFood Engineering’s 2006 Salary and Job Satisfaction Survey respondents. For the first time in five years, there has been an increase in the job satisfaction rate with nearly 70 percent of those polled saying they were more than somewhat satisfied with their current job and salary level. Between the years 2001 and 2005, the satisfaction rate was at a sluggish standstill, hovering around 66 percent.

The increase comes from those respondents who say they are very satisfied – a significant 28 percent of them, up from 24 percent in 2005. It appears that food and beverage employees are optimists who see the glass as half-full, rather than half empty as do workers in other occupations throughout the US. According to a survey by The Conference Board, a business research organization, half of all Americans say they are satisfied with their jobs, but among the 50 percent who are content, only 14 percent say they are very satisfied. Most, according to The Conference Board survey, are simply showing up to collect a paycheck.

“Rapid technological changes, rising productivity demands and changing employee expectations have all contributed to the decline in job satisfaction,” says Lynn Franco, director of The Conference Board’s Consumer Research Center. “As large numbers of Baby Boomers prepare to leave the workforce, they will be increasingly replaced by younger workers who tend to be dissatisfied with their jobs, and have different attitudes and expectations about the role of work in their lives.”

Well-paid problem solvers

So what is it about the food and beverage industry that has its employees looking through rose-colored glasses this year? Apparently folks in this niche love a good challenge, and it seems they get plenty of them in their daily grind. Many respondents say they are very satisfied with their position because it allows them to solve problems.

“I enjoy what I do, I am respected and appreciated by my company and I am challenged every day,” says one. “I have great working conditions and a variety of projects to work on with multiple problems to solve,” agrees another. Still more very satisfied respondents say, “I am challenged and have a good team atmosphere,” and “I am kept very busy and am challenged constantly with new projects.”

Many of those who say they are very satisfied mentioned their salary as the reason. “My job satisfaction comes from flexibility and great compensation,” brags one very satisfied respondent. Another allows that “work/life balance and excellent salary,” keep him happy.

It would appear that members of the food and beverage club are just plain fun to be around, with many very satisfied respondents citing their fellow co-workers as the reason they like going to work each day. “Each project is different, and our team of professionals is great to work with, so we keep it fun,” says one. While another cites, “Fun projects to work on, good people to work with, and an excellent company that cares about its employees,” as the reasons he is very satisfied.

A handful is fortunate enough to have it all. “My position is challenging and offers a variety of projects, freedom to innovate, freedom to fail, support from management, good compensation, excellent co-workers, and an excellent corporate culture,” says one lucky employee.

Despite these warm and fuzzy feelings, all respondents admit that there is room for improvement. Many who were somewhat dissatisfied or very dissatisfied – and there were 7 percent of them – blame a lack of support from management or shrinking budgets as the reason for their disdain. “Management thinks the workforce is worthless,” says one unhappy camper. “There’s too much work, no budget and no people,” maintains another.

However, few respondents claimed that salary was the reason for their dissatisfaction. Perhaps this is because, according toFE’s survey, two-thirds of respondents received a raise this year. Of those, over half, 51 percent, received a pay increase of 3 percent or less, while 28 percent saw an extra 4 to 6 percent. This is a slight improvement from last year when 52 percent of those respondents who got a raise received an increase of 3 percent or less and 26 percent saw a 4 to 6 percent raise. These increases are on par with the average in other industries, according to the 33rd Annual WorldatWork Salary Budget Survey, which revealed an actual average increase of 3.8 percent for all employee categories for 2006.

MoreFErespondents lost money this year (4 percent), than they did in 2005 (2 percent) and 2004 (3 percent). Obviously, for these folks, the decrease in pay or lack of raises can be problematic. “One of our biggest issues is keeping up morale in the face of increasing personal cost of living and salary freezes due to business results,” expresses one concerned respondent.

However, statistically speaking salaries in the food and beverage industry are nothing to sneeze at. The median salary was at $75,000 in 2006 and 2005, with the majority of respondents – 14 percent both years – saying they are earning between $60,000 and $69,999 per year.

I can't get no satisfaction

Increasing salaries was not one of the top five ways to increase satisfaction. Respondents listed recognition of efforts, improved benefits, hiring additional employees, more responsibility, and fewer work hours as ways to improve morale. Similarly, in 2005, appreciation/recognition and improved medical/ benefits packages were the top two citations when it came to increasing satisfaction, with promotion, increased vacation time, increased profits and more support from upper management rounding out the bottom three last year.

While the mention of recognition as the number one motivator two years running ought to serve as a wakeup call to management, there’s no real way to measure it. Benefits, however, can be measured and the news is not good. Thirty-nine percent of workers in the food and beverage industry faced an increase in the cost of medical insurance payments and 29 percent experienced increases in dental insurance payments. While it is disheartening, food and beverage employees aren’t alone. Premiums for employer-sponsored health coverage climbed an average of 7.7 percent in 2006, according to the 2006 Employer Health Benefits Survey released by the Kaiser Family Foundation, a non-profit organization that provides information and analysis on health care issues to policymakers and the media. Their survey found that the premiums increased more than twice as fast as workers’ wages and overall inflation, with family health coverage costing an average of approximately $12,000 per year with workers paying an average of almost $3,000 toward those premiums, nearly $1,400 more than they did in 2000.

“Working people don’t feel like they are getting any relief at all because their premiums have been rising so much faster than their paychecks,” says Foundation President and CEO Drew Altman.

Unfortunately food and beverage industry workers not only have to struggle with higher out-of-pocket premiums, but also with larger workloads. When asked what steps the company has taken regarding workload, half of all respondents said production has increased without the addition of new positions. In this multiple-responses allowed question, another 40 percent said their company directed employees to fill in the gaps. While the situation may appear bleak, it seems management in food and beverage firms is at least trying to lighten the load. Twenty-nine percent of respondents said their firm had increased production and added new positions and 15 percent maintain that their facility added staff to meet the established workflow. In some cases, tasks that previously required manual labor were automated (23 percent) or manufacturing and packaging, as well as sanitation and maintenance services, were outsourced (26 percent) to provide some relief. Still it may not be enough. One respondent summed it up with “I would be more satisfied if I had a larger support staff.”

In addition to having enough staff, keeping them around seems to be another hurdle. Many who answered the survey mentioned maintaining a skilled workforce and high turnover rates as concerning. “Minimizing employee turnover and maintaining a full work staff are major issues here,” says one. “We are forced to use temporary employee agencies to cover peak needs.”

Another has similar woes. “Maintaining high caliber performers and persons for more than 10 years due to a limited number of promotions and/or workload is an issue for us,” he says.

He seems to hit the nail on the head when it comes to longevity of skilled workers. Of those surveyed, more than half-56 percent-have been with their current employer 10 years or less, with 33 percent of them putting in five years or fewer. However, a significant 15 percent have been with their company for over 25 years. It would make sense that these are the individuals who are very satisfied with their jobs. Many old-timers had comments such as this one: “Everything I own, they paid for. I’ve spent 30 years at the same company.”

And for some who haven’t necessarily been with the same company, but have been in the food and beverage industry for many years, the satisfaction rate was also quite high.“Being in the food industry for 25 years, I’ve found my place,” and “Being over sixty and doing what I’m comfortable with and being paid for my knowledge are all I need in employment.”

Increasing on-the-job efficiency

Regardless of whether someone has been in the industry for two years or twenty, everyone agrees there’s one thing they need above all else to be more efficient, and that is a larger staff. “I need additional help,” begs one respondent. “Currently I am wearing too many hats and cannot always be as focused as I need to be.” Requests for supplementary personnel were followed by wishes for more communication and better direction, better or updated equipment and computer technologies, more training and the availability of proper resources.

While doing more with less has been an issue for years in most industries, pending anti-immigrant laws may have a huge impact on the operating efficiency and staffing in the food and beverage industry.

When asked to describe what, if any, impact on staffing and plant services might occur as a result of anti-immigrant laws, the responses showed overwhelmingly negative outcomes. “One-hundred percent of our plant hourly workers are immigrants, so we would be greatly affected by anti-immigrant labor initiatives,” says one. Another claims they could lose 50 percent of the workforce. Still others fear it would shut down operations entirely. “I’m not sure we can operate without [immigrants]” and “If enforced, it would shut us down,” were common responses.

However, some are more optimistic. “Industry will experience a period of labor shortage, but this problem will diminish over time as the migrant workforce learns the proper process to gain employment,” and “It should improve staffing by providing a system to get manual labor to do unskilled jobs through a documented, controlled process,” says another.

Not surprisingly, immigration issues ranked among the top five most important workplace issues companies face today. When respondents were asked in an open-ended question about the most important workplace issues faced today, safety was cited most often. Retaining trained staff and a qualified workforce was the second most significant issue, with competition and the labor shortage tying for third, communications ranked fourth and finally immigration taking fifth place.

Safe and secure

Perhaps the reason many folks in the food and beverage industry feel free to gripe about the areas that are less than perfect is because, as a whole, they feel pretty secure in their jobs. Almost two-thirds – 67 percent – of respondents say they feel at least somewhat secure. Only 8 percent said they did not feel secure.

Maybe this feeling of security or an encouraging environment gives food and beverage workers the freedom to be innovative. “[My organization] encourages responsibility and open communication,” explains one respondent. “Everyone has ideas but they have to know what the objectives are and understand the process. Innovations in context are the goal.”

Many others say their companies “empower each worker on the floor,” “show appreciation for good ideas,” “ask employees to contribute ideas,” or “provide added rewards for those that develop or innovate.” Some receive an annual bonus for performance, and innovation is factored into that bonus.

Based onFE’s survey results, it seems that while things could be better with more staff, less expensive benefits and an occasional pat on the back, life isn’t so bad for employees in the food and beverage industry. But like any other profession, a job is still a job and the work will keep coming day after day. “I enjoy my work, there’s just so much of it,” jokes one respondent. It seems the only way to finally get total satisfaction is to retire and do what you love. “I’d rather be fishing,” says one respondent.

Who answered the survey?

A total of 548 people with a variety of job skills and positions responded toFood Engineering’s 2006 Salary and Job Satisfaction Survey. The mostly male respondents (84 percent) served as plant managers (10 percent), project engineers (10 percent), presidents (7 percent), quality control managers (7 percent), technical directors (6 percent), engineering managers (5 percent), sanitation/maintenance managers (5 percent), and vice presidents, operations (5 percent). Another 15 percent were, for the most part, equally divided among vice president of manufacturing, vice president of engineering, operations directors, production supervisors, purchasing managers and packaging managers. An additional 30 percent had “other” titles.

The majority of respondents – 26 percent – worked in the food industry between 11 and 20 years. However, more than half – 56 percent – have been with their current employer fewer than 10 years. About two-thirds of respondents worked for companies that had more than one location, but both large and small firms were represented. Thirty percent of the companies had 5,000 or more employees; 9 percent had between 2,500 and 4,999 employees; almost 12 percent had 1,000 to 2,499 employees; 8 percent had 500 to 999 employees; 10 percent had 250 to 499 employees; 11 percent had 100 to 249 employees and just under 20 percent had fewer than 100 employees.