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Re-thinking human resources - beyond COVID-19

  • 4.5 min read

The shortage of skilled workers in the food and beverage sector is not news to anyone in the industry. However, a bit of planning will go a long way to helping small and medium businesses take advantage of the opportunities available to attract quality employees.

Labour market research completed by Food Processing Skills Canada in 2019 shows that the industry experienced labour shortages before the coronavirus pandemic. And future shortages could be as high as 65,000 people by 2025.

The research cites retirement and retention as the primary issues, compounded by a lack of industry awareness with job seekers, poor perception of the job opportunities that exist, and a mismatch between the skills of an individual and what's needed for the job.

Start thinking long-term

"The most important thing companies can do is proper onboarding and upscaling...”

Jennefer Griffith is Executive Director at Food Processing Skills Canada.  This national sector organization supports food and beverage manufacturing businesses in developing skilled employees and professionalizing the industry through a national skills strategy. She believes the COVID-19 situation won’t change things in the long-term, so food and beverage companies need to plan for the future.

“The most important thing companies can do is proper onboarding and upscaling - caring about your people and thinking about different ways you can adjust the occupation to today’s workforce,” Griffith says. She cites examples such as improved time flexibility for those with families and access to technology to accommodate the online generation.

Griffith also noted that there are still insufficient programs to support workers entering the sector. For example, a kitchen worker who wants to switch away from the demanding hours that restaurants require. However, there aren’t enough training programs to give them the skills to become a meat cutter or adapt to the technology and automation needed for the dairy sector.

“They think they know what the job will be like, but when they experience it, it may be too cold or too loud or too hot. If they make the two-week mark, there’s usually a good chance they will stay,” she explains.

She adds that this is where employers need to improve their onboarding practices by providing more information on pay, working conditions, required skills and training.

Étienne Claessens owns Soluflex, a human resources optimization consulting company in Quebec, specializing in small and medium-sized businesses. He counts several food enterprises amongst his 500+ clients over the last 12 years and agrees with the long-term prognosis for the food and beverage sector.

“Between 2020 and 2030, more people will leave the job market than people who will enter, and the main reason is that baby boomers are retiring,” Claessens says.

He notes that COVID-19 won’t change the impact of this demographic decline in the long haul. However, the industry will still have to address the perception and skills issues that are contributing to the challenges of finding human resources in the sector.

A window of opportunity

However, he thinks that the disruption caused by the coronavirus will provide a short window of opportunity for recruitment until the economy improves.

The current swath of COVID-19-related government programs and subsidies will soon come to an end, and there will be business closures and mergers. The challenge of finding a workforce will be mitigated, Claessens believes, for a two- to three-year period as more people are looking for work.

“I believe fundamentally that it will be a lot easier for employers to recruit and, yes, it gives an opportunity to hire high-calibre people and for food and beverage processors to experience some growth,” he says.

Claessens figures there are three main aspects that managers need to act on to take advantage of both the short-term opportunity and for longer-term planning.

1. Invest in your brand

“Demonstrate how your business is different from others and what makes it more attractive,” he says. What will make future employees choose to go to your enterprise rather than somewhere else?”

He advises not to wait and suggests using social media to promote the fact that your company is a great place to work – interesting work, stable business, opportunities to progress, the long-term outlook, etc.

2. Emphasize job security

Even if there is a second wave of the coronavirus, food manufacturing is a growth sector in the long-term, and this offers employment stability.

“When people start to apply for positions, after they have lost their jobs the question of stability will be extremely important in their calculations because people are now aware of a more uncertain future,” Claessens notes.

3. Set new goals for the business.

He recommends changing approaches to human resources management, such as looking at things like starting salaries. Claessens suggests making them more attractive to recruit and keep good talent and to be a leader in the marketplace (linking back to the first objective).

Claessens says he has clients who always want to negotiate the best possible deal. He believes such tactics do not work in the medium term because when people move on to seek employment elsewhere in the food sector, the replacement costs for employees are higher than the savings.

He adds that when his company posts a position in search of skilled personnel, they put forward the strengths and advantages of the position and the enterprise to attract top talent. He recommends that processors get a plan in place and start marketing their human resource strengths.

“You have to think about the long-term, Claessens says, not only the next three months.”

Article by: Hugh Maynard