Meat & Livestock News

Addressing Labor Challenges in the Meat Industry

Portrait of a bearded meat man dressed in a fleece shirt holds an axe and fresh cut meat.

TL;DR: HR leaders from the meat industry discussed labour shortages at a conference, emphasising the need for effective retention, leadership development, and flexible work policies to address ongoing challenges and ensure sustainable workforce management amidst evolving market demands and the impact of recent global disruptions like COVID-19.

Labour Shortages and Their Impact

At the recent Executive Exchange & Conference, hosted by the Food Production Solutions Association, a panel of human resource leaders from major meat and poultry processing companies discussed the long-term impact of labour shortages. They emphasised the difficulties faced in keeping operations fully staffed and retaining workers, a challenge magnified by the pandemic.

Insights from Kimberly Crawford

Kimberly Crawford, the vice president of human resources at Birchwood Foods in Kenosha, Wis., shared her experiences since joining the industry in early 2020. Despite the challenges posed by COVID-19, Birchwood’s four plants experienced very low turnover during the pandemic, thanks to efforts focused on keeping operations smooth and workers healthy.

However, the post-COVID period revealed several challenges, including shortages in skilled labour, professional management, and HR managers. Crawford highlighted issues like the Great Resignation and silent quitting, where employees started seeking opportunities elsewhere, adding pressure to the already strained labour market.

Sonja Totland’s Perspective

Sonja Totland, human resource director at Agri Beef in Boise, Idaho, noted that the pandemic’s toll is still affecting her company. The focus on managing through COVID-19 drew resources away from important areas like workforce and leadership development. Agri Beef is now prioritising succession planning and continuing its leadership development initiatives to build a resilient future.

Challenges at Perdue Foods

John Heard, from Perdue Foods in Salisbury, Md., discussed the difficulties in retaining skilled labour, especially as demand for workers with technical skills has increased. The turnover rate for these roles has doubled in some instances, propelled by competitive recruitment efforts from other firms. Perdue is working to offer incentives that attract new talent and retain existing employees.

Mentorship and Knowledge Transfer

All panellists acknowledged the challenge of experienced operations-focused employees retiring or leaving the industry, which creates significant knowledge gaps. They stressed the importance of mentorship programs where seasoned employees can pass down their expertise to newer staff members.

Totland emphasised the critical need for identifying key positions well ahead of time and implementing plans like job shadowing and mentorship to ensure smooth transitions and continuity.

Adapting Training and Development

Crawford pointed out that the meat industry tends to focus on immediate tasks, often at the expense of long-term planning. She admitted that Birchwood Foods was not adequately prepared for the future, lacking a learning and development department until 2021. The company is now making efforts to pause and plan, focusing on business continuity, succession planning, and bridging skills gaps.

Flexible Scheduling and Diversity

Heard highlighted the growing expectation for flexible scheduling among workers who no longer want to work extended hours. Ensuring suitable schedules that allow for a good work-life balance is now a priority.

Crawford mentioned the opportunity to expand the labour pool by including legal immigrants and refugees, working with organisations like the United Way. Birchwood Foods has developed hiring and training programs in multiple languages to accommodate a diverse workforce.

Innovative Training Techniques

Birchwood utilises artificial intelligence to create training videos in various languages, catering to workers who may not be literate, allowing for quicker and more effective onboarding and safety training.

Totland also discussed the importance of hands-on training for the next generation of workers, who value recognition and practical learning. Agri Beef has established a coaching department to support new employees through their initial employment phase.

Future-Proofing the Workforce

Heard discussed how automation is reshaping job roles, creating a need for more technically skilled workers. Perdue is collaborating with local high schools to foster interest in food industry careers, offering internships and training to prepare the next generation for these evolving demands.

The panellists agreed that the meat industry faces significant challenges but also opportunities for growth and improvement. Through strategic planning, innovative training, and flexible work policies, they are committed to building a robust and sustainable workforce.