Hiring the right people in a bakery plant means possibly fishing in a new lake, according to Rowdy Brixey.

After working in the baking industry for more than three decades, Rowdy Brixey knows a thing or two about workforce development. And that comes not only from his time at companies such as Bimbo Bakeries USA, where he served as director of engineering and maintenance optimization and vice-president of manufacturing. It also comes from a personal commitment to serving the baking industry as a whole.

In his new firm, Brixey Engineering, Strategies & Training, Mr. Brixey consults for bakeries in areas of maintenance, project management, capacity planning and troubleshooting, and technical asset training. He recently sat down with Baking & Snack to share his thoughts on key industry issues. In this installment, Mr. Brixey weighs in on the workforce gap and other employee development issues in regard to bakery maintenance and engineering. 

Baking & Snack: What can baking companies do to find new maintenance and engineering personnel and help bring them up through the ranks?

Rowdy Brixey: First, it’s important to remember that you might already have the right people, and you need to be focused on retaining them. In that case, you have to keep your finger on the pulse of how they feel about their employment with your company.

Don’t create openings to try and fill. If you’re happy with your current workers, gauge if they are content or if they’re at risk of leaving you for someone else? What kinds of surveys, conversations or questions are necessary to figure out how to keep the staff?

A lot of people think throwing more money at it is the answer, but that’s not necessarily the case. Personally, I can’t really say I ever felt like I wasn’t paid as well as or better than anyone else in the industry. But yet, there have been many times over my 37 years that I’ve been less than satisfied at my job. So, it’s not just about pay.

You’ve got to build your own bench.

What are key issues to look for when hiring for a new position?

Mr. Brixey: A lot of experienced people today, quite honestly, are often running from something when they leave their current job. In that case, you’re potentially hiring someone else’s problem. If they decided to go look for another job — not necessarily because they’re looking for a better opportunity — they’re looking to reset the clock and go back to the honeymoon period that comes with new employment. Then you’ve got about a year before things start to get serious. If you realize you made a bad hire, you’ve got about another year involved in fixing that problem.

What are some of the red flags that indicate you might be hiring someone else’s problem?

Mr. Brixey: Think about buying a used car. You’ve got to look beyond aesthetics and eye appeal. You’re going to have to look under the hood and “jack it up” — look at angles that someone typically wouldn’t expect you to see.

At the same time, did the person jump jobs every year or jumped in and out of different industries? Social media makes it a little bit easier to do research on younger people in the industry.

I hire for attitude, train for skill. That has always done well for me over the years. You bulk that up with mechanical aptitude at the level you’re looking for —  whether it’s PLC aptitude, troubleshooting or problem-solving — it’s using a ‘trust but verify’ approach to aptitude.

What are some realistic strategies for making the right hire?

Mr. Brixey: For me, personally, I trust my gut. Normally through the interview process, just talking to people and asking questions go a long way.

Keep in mind, I’m not asking questions about how to read electrical print or a project. Tell me about the best boss you ever worked for. What were those attributes? If the answer is someone very demanding, who pushed you to develop in areas you didn’t think possible, that means you appreciated the hard times when you were being developed. But if you reflect on a boss that took it easy on you, then that’s different. And then I wonder if that’s the kind of boss you would be. Whom have you mentored, and why?

We all know there’s a gap in the workforce … aside from the need for people to physically fill the positions, what does the industry need to close that gap?

Mr. Brixey: What our industry is lacking today, in almost every area, is leadership. It’s not people who can follow process — use the ovens, mixers, dividers and other technology —  that’s the same roadmap it’s always been. What’s lacking are the leaders to guide people and close those gaps, those individuals who are not afraid to have a difficult conversation. It’s one thing to identify a gap. It’s another to sit down and have a conversation with someone about what those gaps really are and what to do to close them.

Consider safety observations: It’s easy to observe safe behaviors. It’s much harder to have a conversation about unsafe behavior with somebody who won’t get on board. It doesn’t matter if it’s maintenance, production or sanitation. Some conversations need to start with, “What you’re doing is less than what we need, but the good news is that I’m going to work with you to help you develop. All you have to do is progress.”

It doesn’t matter if it’s people safety, food safety, mixing or sanitizing or maintaining. There has to be a development process. You’re either meeting the needs, or there’s a gap and we just need to have a conversation about how to close it. Otherwise, without observed progress, you’re making the decision for me on what the next steps are. It’s the attitude. Again … hire for attitude, train for skill.

Many labor issues such as technology pertain to multiple generations working in the same facility. Is this really a generational thing, or is there more to the story?

Mr. Brixey: Ultimately, you probably need to deal with different people in different ways, but the first step must be understanding what a specific people want out of the job. What do they want out of their career, and what do they want out of the arrangement that you have with them as associates?

We need to look at it not so much generationally but individually. The skills gap that one person would have vs. what someone else would can be completely different regardless of age, gender or level of experience.

I know some people who are much older than I am and are more gifted with some of the technology today. Whether it’s the folks making the CMMS software or the guys doing PLC programming for some of the plants,  there are people older and younger who are all at different levels.

I do agree that, generally, millennials seek instantaneous feedback — not necessarily “good” or “bad” —but receiving no feedback at all is more concerning to them than negative feedback. Think in terms of social media. If a younger person posts something on social media and doesn’t instantly see people “like” it or “dislike” it or said “wow” or something, it’s a problem. But if they had 300 responses that said, “Boo!” it would be okay because the general mentality is, “Love me or hate me, you’re following me.”

Many baking companies and associations are coming up with new ways to find new talent. But where are they not looking?

Mr. Brixey: There’s a huge disconnect. Everyone’s looking for mechanics. You’ll never — and I couldn’t possibly emphasize this more — you’ll never find an engineering grad worth the cost of the scholarship who will want to swing a tool pouch. It’s almost an oxymoron. In other words, “Why did you go to college?” To be an engineer. Mechanics aren’t engineers.

I don’t think going to any college to find mechanics is a wise investment because that’s not what engineering students aspire to be. And that’s a problem.

I think this is a combination of two things. I started swinging a tool pouch at 16 years old in a bakery because I didn’t want to go to college. I had to go back to college later to progress to the executive side of the business, but it wasn’t my passion.

This industry needs to fish with a different bait and in a different lake. We’re fishing, but in the wrong places; we’re fishing in colleges. Don’t get me wrong, we need both. But there’s probably one supervisor for every six to eight mechanics. So, if you just hit a few colleges and get some management candidates, you’ll probably meet your quota.

So, where is the lake?

Mr. Brixey: We need to start going to trade schools. I believe we even need to start the conversation at the high school level. I’ve said it before. We ought to be going into high schools and talking to kids in 10th or 11th grade. We need to split the group between who’s interested in going to college and those who aren’t.

There are very robust mechanical aptitude tests. They’re not written; it’s a machine with no moving parts, and it scores based on how a person interacts with the machine. And now you look for a high aptitude and the passion to do the work. Take the two of those and put them on a track that paints a picture of how they could develop into the jobs we have on the maintenance side.

People are scared of trade skills and don’t seem to see the value in learning them. Thus, we’re no longer teaching trade skills in the high schools like we used to. There was foundry, drafting auto mechanics, electrical and woodshop when I was in high school, but it’s not there anymore. This industry must begin looking for ways to fill the ever-increasing gap, so we need to find passionate people earlier, maybe by starting a summer school that’s somehow industry-sponsored, or something similar to what AIB used to have with the residence  school, where you target high school students during the break between 10th and 11th or 11th and 12th grades.

Don’t misunderstand, I’m not talking about putting 16-year-olds in a bakery; we can take them into a classroom and put them on a path that says, “If you’re not going to college, we can prepare you for a career in our industry through an apprentice program.” Perhaps the industry can figure out a way to cover the costs and help get these classes started (after all, somebody’s got to be paid to teach the class and provide the facility).

They’ll have a job — maybe working nights and weekends — but making a decent wage. This way, we’re putting them on a path that as long they’re willing to continue learning, we’ll continue to push and develop them.

We can always tap into the colleges for the supervision and leadership side if we need to. But maintenance/mechanics is what we’re going to be hurting for the most.

People often use the word “mechanic” and “engineer” interchangeably. Are they? What’s the difference?

Mr. Brixey: I was always called “plant engineer” and never had an engineering degree. I do think the terminology is misleading.

When you get mechanics who have a passion for leadership, then you can develop them into understanding your values, your culture, and help them become leaders ... as long as you’re pulling from the right base. You might have a 6-to-1 mechanics-to-leaders ratio. Double-down on hiring the right mechanics, and you’ll find more future leaders.