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How to build – and keep – a better workforce

3.5 min read

Finding and retaining employees is a tough job in the current food and beverage sector environment. The new landscape brings with it the need for a different approach to employee engagement and retention.

According to experts in the sector, strategies such as acknowledging the skills required to perform traditionally undervalued tasks, aligning practices with employee values and being more flexible can help businesses thrive in a highly competitive and tumultuous environment.

Acknowledge employee skills

Dana McCauley, Chief Experience Officer for the Canadian Food Innovation Network, challenges food and beverage processors to change their thinking and terminology from labour to talent.

“I think the word labour is too broad, and when used exclusively, it creates a false impression that our food industry staffing issues are purely about matching bodies to vacancies,” McCauley says.

Food manufacturers, restaurants and grocers need unskilled labour, but to grow and thrive, they need talent.

“We have members who work in technology companies who can't find staff with the skill sets they need. On the foodservice side, many fine dining chefs say they can't find skilled cooks.”

Fundamentally, opting to use more accurate terms in place of labour is part of a necessary mindset change. In the current environment, older perspectives are increasingly holding back innovation.

“Food manufacturers, restaurants and grocers do need unskilled labour, but to grow and thrive, they need talent,” McCauley says.

Mike Mikulak, Executive Director for Food & Beverage Manitoba, agrees. Focusing on talent rather than bodies performing tasks is a crucial part of changing what have been poor optics for food processing jobs.

“It’s an image thing,” Mikulak says. “There’s a sort of disconnect between what people think about the industry and what it is.

Top tip for acknowledging employee skills

Adopt a new mindset that embraces modern business thinking.

Align practices with employee values

Mikulak adds that aligning a business’ culture and work policies with changing employee values is necessary, giving employees a feeling of ownership.

Practices to avoid:

  • Clinging to a hierarchical relationship structure

  • Making it difficult for employees to communicate their needs and expertise

  • Disregarding the need to address core values around issues such as climate change.

“The industry is struggling with some legacy things, not offering people what they want and need,” Mikulak says, citing better work/life balance and training opportunities as examples.

“The old notion of a hierarchical company isn’t appealing to people. Think about how you’re engaging. When things break down, are you valuing staff insight and skill, or are you sitting there and calling them unskilled labour? It goes from daily practices valuing what they do to providing development opportunities.”

Top tip to align business practices with employee values

Create an atmosphere where it’s easy for employees to communicate what they need from you and where their skills could be best used.

Be flexible

Did you know the idea for the Cheeto snack company’s Flamin’ Hot variety came from one of its production facility janitors? It’s true, says Mikulak, and it’s a good example of how every employee, regardless of their position, can be an asset to the wider business. Communicating with employees — and being flexible, so you don’t assume they have little insight based on their title — is critical.

Willingness and flexibility to have open communication with all employees lets them know they are a valuable part of the team. It’s also another way of keeping employees happy and satisfied with their jobs and more likely to keep the employees in one place — working for you — rather than seeking.

Many companies undervalue the cost of recruiting and training.  But, if you can retain your current workforce by, for example, making them happy with a four-day work week, it could be a money-saver, Mikulak says.

“It might be challenging, but if you step back and look at what it will enable, I think it opens things up.”

Top tip to show flexibility

Make employee retention a high priority – recruiting and training is expensive.

How to start

McCauley says a clear decision-making strategy, and using it regularly, is a good place to start. If employees understand the strategy, and are behind the same vision, they will understand why decisions are made. The onus then rests on management to have a well-thought out, well communicated plan.  

By creating a respectful workspace where you understand specialized skills, acknowledge employee values and are willing to work with employees, you will improve your opportunities to find and retain a steady workforce.

Article by: Matt McIntosh

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