Retention & Recruitment Issues In Dairy Industry
As the dairy industry continues to grapple with challenges in recruiting and retaining top talent at their companies, executives from three cheese companies shared some of the strategies and initiatives they are undertaking to bolster the value proposition of becoming part of their workforce.
The session, “Winning Workforce Tools in Challenging Times,” was held Wednesday, April 13th during CheeseExpo in Milwaukee, and it included insights from Dennis Winters, chief economist at the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development, followed by a cheese executive panel and an interactive workshop led by Cynthia Wentland, certified coach and founder of Intentionaleaders LLC.
Winters shared highlights from a U.S. Labor Market Analysis and Forecast noting the toll the COVID-19 pandemic has taken on job growth.
“COVID interrupted the longest economic expansion of all time,” he says. “In Wisconsin, we’ve lost about 14-15 years of job growth, and we’re still about 70,000 jobs short of where we were pre-COVID.”
While output in the state is still near pre-COVID levels, the labor force is flattening and may even go negative, he adds.
He notes the major challenge from a macro standpoint is finding enough workers, while from a micro standpoint the challenge is getting those workers who are available to come work for you.
Some possible solutions include off-sharing (cutting back hours versus layoffs), immigration, eliminating barriers for the chronically unemployed and advancing technology, such as through automation, Winters says.
However, automation can go one of two ways — it can augment current jobs or it can replace them, he adds.
Following Winters’ remarks was a panel discussion led by Rebekah Sweeney, senior director of programs and policy for CheeseExpo host Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association (WCMA), and featuring Mara Kamat, vice president of human resources for Great Lakes Cheese; Anne Troka, community development manager for Sargento Foods; and Michelle Steen, human resources director for Ellsworth Cooperative Creamery.
Sweeney posited a series of questions that panelists responded to:
Q: What retention strategies are working for you right now?
Kamat cited Great Lakes Cheese’s Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP) as a key tool for employee retention.
“With record years, our employees get to participate in our profits. I think that human connection to the company’s success can help drive retention,” she says.
Longer term, Kamat says the company is looking at how it can develop tools to make its workforce more flexible in terms of scheduling and hours, noting she’d love to utilize an app where employees can remotely switch shifts with each other.
“It’s about understanding what tools are out there and how we can use them to drive a better employee experience focusing on retention,” she says.
Troka says Sargento focuses on a total benefits package.
“We’re focusing on caring leaders and building relationships — supporting and inspiring our employees to be their best,” she says.
The company also has workforce development initiatives and apprenticeships.
“We also focus on tuition reimbursement for associate, bachelor’s or master’s degrees, paid for by the company,” she says.
Flexible scheduling also has been a key tool, Troka says.
“We’ve changed our policies so Mondays and Fridays are remote flexible,” she notes as one example.
As a smaller employer, Steen says Ellsworth Cooperative Creamery has shifted its focus from attraction to retention.
“We pay competitively, we have awesome benefits — so what can we do beyond others to keep employees?” Steen asks. “I think it’s important to look at how you treat your employees and how do their leaders treat them?”
Q: How can we better use financial rewards to motivate employees over time?
Troka says Sargento offers long-term incentives to employees who stay with the company. The company also has switched to being open to hiring personnel without a high school diploma under the contingency that they complete their education or get their G.E.D. through the company once they are hired.
Steen says Ellsworth also has tuition reimbursement for employees going into certain roles, and it has expanded benefits like parental leave to attract and retain workers.
Kamat says Great Lakes Cheese has incorporated additional wellness benefits for employees, such as gym membership reimbursement.
Q: How are you addressing inflation in an employees’ market?
Troka says inflationary concerns certainly are impacting employee decisions in job selection, such as how far a commute is with the price of gas.
“We’re offering incentives to meet people where they’re at. We think about each employee and what their needs are. It’s also very important to make sure employees know what’s in their benefit package and how they’re using it,” she says.
Kamat says even with inflation, Great Lakes Cheese plans to stay competitive with its wage increases.
“Our approach is to think long-term — we’ll look to make sure employees understand all the benefits we’re offering them,” she says. “Over time, at some point, I’m of the mind that we’ll have a recession, and I think it will be in the next year. I think we all have to just be smart and run our businesses intelligently until we get to that point in time.”
Q: How can we build on diversity and inclusion initiatives to ensure everyone can have a place in our plants?
Sweeney notes this can be particularly challenging for a lot of dairy manufacturers located in rural areas.
Steen agrees it is challenging for Ellsworth, but the company still seeks to increase its diversity in the long run.
“I like to use a farmer analogy — what we do today impacts what happens in the future,” she says. “We do bring in interns, and this year, the majority are women, and we’re trying to target diverse populations.”
Troka says Sargento looks at cultural and generational diversity — diversity of thought and perspectives.
“We’re focusing on future talent as well,” she says. “We know that students are the future workforce for us.”
Sweeney says especially for smaller companies, developing an inclusion and diversity plan can be daunting, but she encourages companies to lean on their trade associations like WCMA for guidance and resources.
Lastly, Wentland led attendees through an interactive workshop on “Leading Through Change.”
She notes change is challenging, and many change efforts fail, largely due to lack of urgency, no visible benefits or an unclear plan for change.
Some best practices she shared include:
• Establish urgency — Employees need to understand the “why” of making a change. It’s also important to establish urgency to motivate them to make the change.
Both external and internal factors drive change, Wentland notes, with some external drivers being workforce shortages, technology and an aging workforce, while some internal drivers could be leadership changes, company buyouts and competition.
• Benefits — “You have to sell the change and need to get people involved,” Wentland says. “Look at what the risks and consequences are for action versus inaction.”
• Plan: ADKAR (Awareness, Desire, Knowledge, Ability, Reinforcement) — This acronym can be a helpful tool, Wentland notes.
For awareness, make it known why this change is needed, and do employees understand this? What is the change?
Desire translates to a willingness to change/motivation. Do the employees care?
Knowledge is about making the employees understand how the change may benefit them or the company.
Ability is about training and learning in order to have the ability to make the change.
Reinforcement can be about rewards and consequences. Does anyone pay attention if people are making the change?
“We tend to focus on those resisting change and ignore those who are doing it and thanking them,” Wentland adds.
Some key influencing strategies may include empowerment, sharing a common vision, logical persuasion, coercion, interpersonal awareness, organizational awareness and bargaining, Wentland says.
“You’re more likely to succeed if you establish urgency with your ‘why,’ clearly communicate the value and risks, and create a clear plan for change,” she says.
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