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Last week, I had the pleasure of visiting eight FPSA members in their offices with the goal of learning more about their businesses and the current state of the economy. These lessons would probably not surprise most food industry professionals. Growth has slowed in 2022. Supply chain issues are a concern. And perhaps the most common response, it is getting harder to get product out the door with the workforce shortages that really blew up during the pandemic.

As I have written about in the past, even in the years prior to the pandemic we could all see that the retirement of the baby boomer generation was going to be a problem.  In fact, in a March piece (The Great Resignation Didn’t Start with the Pandemic) in the Harvard Business Review, its authors point out that from 2009 to 2019, the average monthly quit rate increased by 0.10 percentage points each year. In 2020, this rate dropped most likely due to the pandemic and the subsequent uncertainty in the economy. However, in 2021 the US Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated that approximately 47 million Americans voluntarily quit their job, which not only represented a near .5% increase from the previous year, but it also followed the same trend as in 2009-2019, and even made up for that decline in 2020.

While the authors of this piece cover five different reasons for the Great Resignation, I choose to focus primarily on retirement. With confidence from a strong stock market and rising property values, many older workers (and some not so old) chose to stop working to spend more time with family, to focus on priorities other than work, and also out of concern for their health. This might be what sets us apart from the Great Recession when there was a 1% increase in employment among workers 55 and older, compared to now where we have seen roughly a 2% decline in employment of this same age range.

I guess they couldn’t predict what the market would do over the past six months, let alone how the housing market will react to recent rate hikes from the Fed, but that’s their issue. We who continue to work everyday in this great industry have all had to move on, looking for new talent to fill these positions as the food industry works to continue feeding a hungry world.

At FPSA, we are tackling this issue from multiple angles. First and foremost, we launched the Food Industry Technician Development Program (or FIT). Given the acute need for more service technicians among food manufacturers and equipment suppliers, the FIT Program was launched four years ago to develop a curriculum that would train aspiring workers and give them a head start into these valuable positions. This program has exceeded all expectations, with graduates landing in prominent companies across the country, whether it be in the food processing plant or on the road servicing equipment that FPSA members manufacture. In fact, this program has been so successful to date that the facility has been expanded, additional equipment has been brought in for training, and a second track of students is planned to double the number of graduates after each 13-week training period. And since even that won’t come close to replacing the number of qualified technicians this industry has lost in recent years, plans are underway to add additional campuses. Anyone interested in FIT should reach out to FPSA CEO and President David Seckman.

Now, if all we needed was service technicians, we’d be in great shape but as the members I visited last week informed me, workforce needs go far beyond that. We’re seeing job vacancies in a wide range of areas. The problem is, FPSA members aren’t just competing with other food industry manufacturers for talent. They’re competing with all industries as we all seem to be in the same boat, fishing for a limited number of prospective employees. As such, FPSA will be conducting its first ever Career Fair, scheduled to take place on the campus at Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago from October 4th through the 6th. During this live event, students from all majors will be introduced to the advantages of a career in the food and beverage industry, be it on the manufacturing side or those companies that supply it with products and services. Students who study food science, engineering, computer science, mechatronics, marketing, and accounting, to name a few, will be invited to sit down with FPSA members to discuss the possibility of coming to work for them.

This is just the first step in making promising young people aware of the food industry as a promising career path. This will be followed up with a second career fair at IIT in the spring of 2023, as well as in the fall at PROCESS EXPO. As we move forward with this concept, FPSA hopes to partner with other universities in the west, the south, the northeast, as well as more in the Midwest, as we bring these regional hiring events closer to our members.

FPSA members interested in participating in the October Career Fair can contact me for more details. As I said to several members last week, it took us many years to get into this workforce hole, and it will likely take us just as many years to climb out. But it’s time to start climbing!

Andy Drennan, FPSA SVP