Connect, Communicate, and Beat Labor Shortages in Food Manufacturing

Article sponsored by: Redzone

We hear from our food industry clients that turnover has reached record proportions and that hiring and retaining workers is at the forefront of pandemic recovery. If you’re one of those factories, the bad news is that the labor crisis is here to stay. But by connecting with a new kind of workforce, you can avoid its worst effects and drive the type of engagement that makes your plant the go-to source for great careers.

A labor crisis in food plants

While the labor situation improves from pandemic-high unemployment of 14.8% to the current 3.6%, the manufacturing sector continues to struggle with a historic shortage of workers.[1] Why? With low unemployment, jobs shouldn’t go unfilled. But the reality in food plants is that finding workers to fill growing orders is increasingly difficult.

While capacity in food plants reached pre-pandemic levels by mid-2021, labor still hasn’t rebounded.[2] It’s such a problem that 38% of executives feel attracting new talent is their top priority in manufacturing.[3]

Welcome to the Great Resignation, a workplace exodus that, over the past six months, has seen roughly 4 million Americans per month (nearly 3% of the labor force) quitting their jobs.[4] From baby boomers retiring early to workers switching jobs to take advantage of generous sign-on bonuses, people are leaving their positions in record numbers. Unfortunately for plant executives, manufacturing leads the pack. Quit rates in plants are almost double what they were in December 2019.[5]

There’s been some hope for a quick return to pre-pandemic labor norms among executives. After all, some indicators are positive. It isn’t often that economic growth is coupled with an unprecedented labor shortage. But those hopes aren’t materializing. The effects of the Great Resignation aren’t going anywhere for plant managers, as evidenced by one study by Deloitte that predicts that more than 2 million manufacturing jobs will be unfilled through 2030.[6]

Naturally, managing the labor crisis has become an ongoing core challenge. And a competitive labor market with the opportunity for growing business raises the stakes for business executives hoping to mitigate the labor shortage.

Food plants can’t manufacture workers out of thin air, but they can work toward higher productivity, longer-retained, engaged and upskilled workers, as well as a culture that ensures workers can find answers and on-the-fly train on the job so that factories can ship more cases regardless of the labor conditions in the greater industry.

New generation, new ways to communicate and motivate

It’s been said the Great Resignation is not just an exit from the workplace in general, but a Great Reimagining for young workers whose job switches are reflective of a search for work that speaks to them and takes into account:

  • Their long-term career goals
  • Their aspirations for the meaning of work
  • Their sense of community

Baby boomers aren’t returning, and food plants can’t count on their oversized numbers alone to help fill roles. COVID concerns and retirement have meant the end of many boomer careers, and even without early retirements, 11,000 boomers reach retirement age per day, a trend that will continue until the youngest ones clock out for the last time in 2030.[7]

The problem with baby boomer retirements is that factory processes generally align with their history of weekend fiddling with everything from transistor radios to restored classic cars. They are also built on generational respect for manufacturing, made for a time when workers were happy to come into the factory and work with their hands. In other words, baby boomers see no stigma in an industry that fast-tracked American prosperity.

Times have changed. Millennials are the largest cohort in the current workplace. And millennials primarily see factories as outdated and their roles there as temporary, not suitable for a long-term career. Since millennial workers focused on career growth, they don’t see themselves staying in a plant long-term.

This generation also arrives in the plant with different expectations than their parents. Rather than a history of mechanical tinkering, they grew up playing electronic games that gave them clear direction, constant feedback, and progressive ways to “level up.” Their workplace expectations reflect those norms.

With the largest cohort of the new workforce focused on personal growth and raised on tech, it makes sense that pay increases alone haven’t stopped the labor crisis. The reality is that when millennials and younger gen-Z newcomers search for work, pay isn’t even in the top three things they’re seeking. These generations’ ultimate goal?  It’s an employer who cares about their wellbeing.[8]

Reimagining the food plant floor in this reality requires a shift from the approach of previous generations to a vision where long-term growth, communication, and technology are all key. At Redzone, we call it “connection” — a set of practices facilitated by familiar technology and dedicated to making the factory floor friendlier to growth, retention, and communication by empowering workers with the knowledge they need, connection with coworkers, and training for advancement.

Redzone’s tech-enabled workplace addresses new generations’ shifting desires for:

  • Growth
    • They want to ramp up faster with digital learning packs that help them feel competent and valuable
    • They’re happy to get welcome videos to onboard them faster and emphasize team belonging
    • They want career progression as emerging leaders
    • They’re excited to access on-the-go videos in their native language for quick help on an issue
  • Retention
    • They want to see the skills required to advance or be eligible for a different role
    • They want to own their progression from job to career
    • The value mentoring-on-demand
  • Communication
    • They prioritize two-way communication with fellow employees, supervisors, and direct reports, across departments
    • They value direct and timely feedback
    • They want to provide value and ideas as well as hear about how new proposals will be implemented
    • They want to be introduced to newcomers, find points of connection, and develop workplace relationships
    • They desire recognition for their triumphs

How Redzone connects the workplace

Redzone solutions streamline the components of continuous improvement that, not coincidentally, are built for the new generation of workers. Unlike other tools, Redzone engages employees using familiar tablets that speak to all their priorities for growth and communication. It’s a multilayer solution that doesn’t just pay lip service to the need for better retention but gives it form, letting employees take the lead.

Because everyone participates and has the agency to learn skills and make changes, Redzone fosters shop floor ownership, ultimately leading to a more engaged workforce.

Connection makes sense from a generational point of view, but it isn’t just young workers that benefit from more communication in the workplace. A more engaged work community across age groups means:

  • Greater retention for all
  • A pipeline of growth-oriented employees, ready to transition into senior roles
  • Reinforcement of desired behaviors
  • Increased employee initiative
  • Ad-hoc problem-solving and faster resolutions

Redzone streamlines factory floor management, so employees get education and communication when they need it. That helps plants grow talent for long-term careers and ultimately become the destination employer in their area.

It might have taken a labor crisis to accelerate the shift to greater communication, growth, and retention in the workplace. Still, the trend started long before the pandemic and will continue long after it.

Our eBook on the labor crisis dives into the reasons for the labor crisis’ lasting hold on the manufacturing industry. It contains our ultimate list of what to look for in a digital solution, so you can start using technology to facilitate better retention and handle the labor crisis better. Download it here.