I have given a lot of thought recently to the reasons why finding skilled labor has been so difficult for the food and beverage industry. Each year when Food Engineering asks its readers to name the top issues they face in improving productivity, the answers are pretty much the same. Readers tell us they require equipment upgrades, they want to improve maintenance operations, and they need to improve the skills training of line supervisors and operators.

Most companies have used equipment upgrades and enhanced maintenance management systems to improve throughput. But, based on our yearly survey results, it seems too few food and beverage manufacturers are making headway when it comes to improving workforce skills. Recently, industry associations have created new and specialized employee engagement and training programs to address this deficit. This is a definite step in the right direction, but I think fixing the problem may be more complex than that.

Many American plant floor workers cannot survive and thrive on today’s average wages. It’s a different world than it was for my parents who raised five children in a major city on one plant worker’s salary. It wasn’t always easy, but it could be done. However, in 2016, my parent would have to earn more than double today’s average plant floor worker salary for the family to survive.

The growth of our economy and our industry depends on a thriving middle class. Just as the food and beverage industry has upgraded plant floor operations with the latest equipment and software, we need to upgrade not only the skills level, but the pay level, of those who possess the right factory floor skills.

Profit margins may be tight in food and beverage processing, but business success depends on engaged employees at all levels of a corporation.