For the last few years, Food Engineering’s State of Food Manufacturing report has listed staffing issues as one of the main trends food processors are facing.

It’s a one-two punch when it comes to the industry’s workforce. With the increase of advanced automation in plants, the industry is largely struggling to find qualified, skilled laborers that can operate the equipment. Additionally, a wave of baby boomers will be imminently retiring from food and beverage plants all over the country.

To fill these positions, the industry will have to figure out how to attract and keep millennial employees, and fast. In the Q&A below, Jay Reilly, business development senior manager for ConnectMe, Deloitte Consulting LLP, discusses one solution: digitally engaging your staff.

FE: How can food and beverage manufacturers use technology to engage employees?

Reilly: Food and beverage manufacturers have invested heavily in technology solutions in the plant – including the use of automation – to process and package food and beverages efficiently and safely. But the future of work is here, driven by the digital revolution and powerful demographic, political and social forces. Employers will need to adapt to this disruption, using technologies to differentiate the employee experience. Here are some specific ways that technology might be used by manufacturing organizations to prepare for the future of work:

• Just as the processing and packaging of food can be automated, so too can various HR processes. Automation can facilitate the routing of work to the right specialist within an HR organization to evaluate a query and fulfill a request, thus making the time employees spend with HR much more targeted.

• Foster a digital organization to create a better experience for employees. Emphasize self-service and focus on making complex HR processes simple, such as Deloitte’s ConnectMe, which connects the workforce to a platform that helps them access what they need, when and where they need it.

• Provide relevant and meaningful applications that are consumer grade. Employees have come to expect that the technology they use at work should be as sophisticated, intuitive, easy to use, and accessible as the technology they use at home.

• Leverage social collaboration tools that allow manufacturers to create affinity groups focused on employees’ work and life events (such as transferring overseas, getting married, and starting a family). This helps employees balance personal and professional demands.

• Give employees plenty of opportunities for training – using a variety of applications. Deloitte research has found that opportunities for growth are central to creating what we call a “Simply Irresistible Organization.” This is an organization that drives engagement by focusing on five key strategies that work together to drive engagement; in addition to growth opportunities, this includes meaningful work, supportive management, a positive work environment, and trust in leadership.

• More manufacturers will likely look to artificial intelligence (AI) to predict employees’ needs and deliver personalized information. Using AI can reduce the need to push large amounts of information out to large groups of people, potentially improving employee communications.

FE: What are the benefits of offering more technology to food and beverage workers?

Reilly: Many firms in this industry are focusing on the employee experience, and technology plays a key role. Productivity and collaboration apps, along with well-being and self-service solutions, are central to enriching the employee experience. Digital technologies such as these support the creation of a Simply Irresistible Organization and can help reduce turnover and increase productivity.

FE: Some workers might be resistant to increased technology. What are some of the ways food and beverage manufacturers can navigate this type of situation?

Reilly: Engaging workers in technology – in any industry – is essential to foster innovation.

• Provide relevant content (e.g. utilizing IRAs and 401Ks as effective paths to retirement), as well as information specific to their role.

• Ensure the conveyance of that content is done so using technologies that are simple, intuitive, and easy to use. This is key to engaging a range of employees.

• Make support accessible – whenever and however employees need it. Employees will likely have questions, so be prepared with a dedicated support team.

• Consider mentoring programs when rolling out new technology, where employees can partner with someone who is more tech-savvy.

FE: Anything else you would like to comment on regarding using more technology in operations? 

Reilly: Attracting skilled resources is harder than ever in a tight job market. Companies that are successful in meeting this challenge often leverage new talent sourcing tools such as cognitive, AI, social collaboration, and video in creating a robust pipeline of qualified candidates.

According to Deloitte’s 2017 Global Human Capital Trends report, “The acceleration of connectivity and cognitive technology is changing the nature of work. As AI systems, robotics, and cognitive tools grow in sophistication, almost every job is being reinvented, creating what many call the augmented workforce.”