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How are US food manufacturers preparing for the future of work?

July 3, 2024
Lukas Vanterpool

THE pandemic has certainly lefts its mark on the US and indeed the global food and beverage industry – from manufacturing, processing and packaging to service delivery and consumption.

Coupled with a major change in consumer shopping habits – largely thanks to restaurant closures during the lockdown, the impact on food manufacturing recruitment and employment has been felt through much of the industry.

So – what have we learned, and how can we collectively prepare for – and deliver – the future of work (FoW) in food manufacturing across America?

What we do know is that it has been a case of all-hands-on-deck; with company bosses and retailers working closely with their associates to introduce a range of blow-busting measures including flexitime, bonuses, training and wellness programmes.

Here, we take a closer look at what needs to be done now to ensure a secure, successful and profitable future for the industry and those recruiting and working within it.


Time to re-imagine the FoW says major study

Earlier this year, Deloitte and FMI-The Food Industry Association surveyed more than 150 US-based executives at US consumer packed goods, food manufacturing and processing companies – along with grocers and food retailers, to get their thoughts on the current state of the industry.

The results make for interesting reading – and we’ll look at those in more detail a little later on.

The study also conducted 15-in-depth interviews with industry leaders to interpret the findings and to get a clearer picture of what is happening inside their own companies.

The challenge, as we know, is how we move forward and future proof the industry at all levels. We need a starting point – so let’s kick off with this quote from Barb Renner, vice chairman, Deloitte LLP, and U.S. consumer products leader.

“During the pandemic, it was all-hands-on-deck to meet consumer demand. Now the food industry is looking to drive performance and business outcomes through future of work initiatives. However, the food industry is a complex system, and no single company is going to be able to get their fully realized vision of the future of work on their own, and will require collaboration with their suppliers, partners and other industry participants. Grocers and product suppliers should lay the groundwork for the future together, and the companies that invest in a people-centric approach by prioritizing the work, workforce and workplace will be better positioned to adapt to shifting consumer preferences and long-term growth.”


Looking to hire? Learn more about working with us: Recruitment services in the US food and beverage industry. 


It’s not all bad news for the food and beverage industry

We know from this extensive study that it wasn’t all bad news. For example, while restaurants and most of the foodservice sector suffered during the pandemic, large segments of the retail food industry truly benefited in terms of sales—as people shifted to at-home consumption, consumer food sales rose to new heights. This graphic gives a snapshot of the change drivers.

One particularly interesting finding explored the impact of lockdown; as consumers quarantined during the pandemic, their preferences shifted; accelerating demand for e-commerce.

It comes as no surprise that change the was sharp and immediate. Online grocery spending quickly grew to 28% of shoppers’ overall food retail spending during the early stages of the pandemic.

The survey reveals that while new and innovative delivery solutions addressed consumer requirements for safer transactions during lockdown, they also were considerably more complex and costly solutions for industry players.

FMI research suggests that during the pandemic, retailers spent almost US$450 million on technology for online shopping and another US$1 billion on delivery services or partnerships with third-party providers.

Both food retailers and suppliers identified talent availability and retention — spanning varying job roles across the industry — as their top workforce challenges.

For retailers:

  • Talent availability – 44%
  • Retaining talent – 40%
  • Retaining and re-skilling employees for new technology 39%

For suppliers:

  • Talent retention and driving company culture – 45%
  • Drawing employees with emerging, high-demand skillsets – 36%

Here’s what Mark Baum, SVP, industry relations, chief collaboration officer at FMI had to say:

“At a time when many industries suffered devastating job losses, the grocery industry has served as a source for occupations for hundreds of thousands of Americans. Yet FMI’s operations data suggest that turnover in food retail was 40% before the pandemic; 46% said COVID-19 made it harder to recruit and retain people. Retailers told us they addressed this tension by focusing on a range of benefits for associates, including higher compensation; bonuses; flexitime; training and skills development; employee wellness programs; education programs; and hiring and retention incentives. As we witness in this new study with Deloitte on the future of our workforce, the food industry can and should continue to rally around the strategies and investments it employed during the pandemic to keep customers and their essential workforce safe and America fed.”

Surely one solution – although it sounds simple – is for food and beverage manufacturing recruiters and companies to work in tandem to switch the focus in some areas of attraction and retention.

The pandemic has changed the industry in many ways, and agencies like The Sterling Choice welcome and encourage a re-imagination to future proof the industry for existing and new associates.


So – how ready are we?

In food, the future of work is about driving tangible business outcomes – the Deloitte study highlights.

For 41% of companies, their top action is to build an organisational culture that celebrates growth, adaptability and resilience as a means to grow sales and market share.

Through work transformation efforts, the food industry also aims to improve the customer experience (27% overall and 39% among food retailers). Increasing innovation, building capacity and reducing cost are the top goals for a minority of companies at 7% each.

Efforts to prepare for the future of work are widespread. Nearly half (46%) of executives say their companies are ready or very ready for work in the new normal.

9 in 10 companies are investing in future of work-related initiatives such as retraining employees to use new technologies. However, only 2 in 10 food retailers and 1 in 10 product suppliers classify their investments as significant.

Competing priorities are constraining progress for half (48%) of the companies surveyed; only 8% cited limited financial capital as a reason for restricting investment in the future of work.

Everyone within the industry recognised that efforts require to prepare for FoW are significant.

The study highlights that despite a willingness to move forward with change, not everyone is where they ideally should be on this journey.

  • Fewer than half of executives say their companies are “ready” or “very ready” for work in the next normal.
  • Almost half lack a clear vision of how the nature of work in the food industry will change over the next one to three years.

However, the good news is that the work is underway and food industry companies now have their eyes open to opportunities that would have been hard to see in 2019. But the challenge remains in building momentum to achieve readiness across the entire industry.

It is a fact that investment will help to bring change around even quicker, so it is pleasing to read that nine in 10 companies are making investments in FoW-related initiatives. However, only two in 10 food retailers or one in 10 product suppliers classify their investments as “significant,” so the industry may still have a long way to go.

We need great leadership – not management – to secure future success

Leading from the top and by example is relevant to every industry, not just retail or food and beverage manufacturing.

The right kind of leadership is crucial when it comes to setting the tone to drive FoW efforts forward.  Placing emphasis on HR or company champions will place daily importance and focus on attracting and retaining the right people with the right skills for the right job.

And this is something that the industry really does need to think about. Let’s not write off the person whose role has been made difficult, uncertain or even untenable due to the pandemic.

If they are a valued and reliable team member, look at what untapped skills they can offer to another role within the company.

We know from the report that food industry companies have laid some of the groundwork in preparing their employees for the change journey to come.

7 in 10 executives say they have engaged their employees in open and honest communication about the changing nature of work. The same number say their employees trust them to implement changes associated with the FoW.

But the industry faces more immediate challenges. If food companies can’t find, hire, retrain—or retain—the people they need to operate, they can quickly find themselves sailing in tricky waters.

The greatest people challenge right now is talent availability and retention FMI’s The Food Retail Industry Speaks survey reflects that turnover in food retail was 40% before the pandemic, and 46% said COVID-19 made it harder to recruit and retain people.

Manufacturers of all kinds are hard-pressed too. According to Deloitte’s broad-based manufacturer research, 77% report, they will have ongoing difficulties in attracting and retaining workers in 2021 and beyond. However, we believe that by working together; with companies, CEOs and HR directors engaging with the right recruitment agency for the food manufacturing industry, the FoW will be secure for this and post-pandemic generations to come.


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About The Author

Lukas Vanterpool

I started The Sterling Choice with Gareth Whyatt back in August 2013. We’ve always remained true to ourselves and what it is we’re trying to achieve – A great company with great people and great results! This journey never stops, we are always finding ways to support our colleagues and make sure they leave every day feeling fulfilled.

Over the years I’ve always been asked “what’s your USP??, what makes you different from all the other agencies??”. That’s an easy one for me to answer – “Our culture makes our business and our people make our culture”

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