Once upon a time, the economy was thriving. Jobs were abundant, and training abounded in the baking and snack food industries. Once upon a time, programs such as Interstate Bakeries’ Dolly Madison University provided internal training, and companies hired pools of skilled temporary workers who could fill in for employees to spend months at AIB International for extensive education and training.

But that was then; this is now. Today, companies are lean, jobs are tight, and positions are filled with cheap, non-skilled labor, which can lead to safety risks for both food and employees. But even in a lean economy, growing your talent pool is not impossible. You just have to know what to look for and how to develop it.

Baking’s new breed

It’s no secret that the baking and snack industries’ workforce is starting to age. In fact, at the American Society of Baking (ASB)’s BakingTech 2013 conference in March, the association reported that industry professionals age 35 and under make up only 15% of the workforce. The number looks bleak, but it can also be seen as an opportunity for bakeries to start attracting young professionals to the industry. “Where is the next generation coming from? Some say this is a dying breed, but I say we are only scratching the surface of the talent in our industry,” said Dave Hipenbecker, ASB’s 2014 chairman and director, network strategy and project engineering for Cincinnati-based Kroger.

To that end, ASB formed the Young Professionals Committee to reach out to and support a younger workforce. At BakingTech 2013, the committee assembled a panel made up of industry veterans who offered advice and insight to the next generation. The panel consisted of two former ASB chairmen — Baking & Snack contributor Theresa Cogswell, principal, BakerCogs, Olathe, KS; and Rowdy Brixey, director of engineering, Bimbo Bakeries USA, Horsham, PA — plus Alan Edington, vice-president, operations, Tennessee Bun Co., Nashville, TN; and Terese O’Neil, key account manager, Arla Foods, Basking Ridge, NJ.

A common theme communicated to the audience, which included both current young professionals and bakery students from Kansas State University (KSU), was that this industry has a reputation for attracting workers and keeping them. This includes Mr. Brixey, who walked into his first bakery at 5 years old. “I grew up in baking, and I was swinging the tool pouch by age 16,” Mr. Brixey said.

Ms. Cogswell agreed. “It’s hard to explain, but when you get into this industry, you don’t want to leave,” she said.

Some of the likeliest of places to find young talent are bakery, grain and cereal science programs at universities such as North Dakota State, TexasA&M and KSU as well as programs offered through AIB International. KSU’s Grain Science and Industry Department’s Bakery Science and Management program currently has 75 students enrolled. But other disciplines are also breeding young talent ripe for the baking industry’s taking.

Peter Rasmussen, a KSU industrial engineering student, is one. “I was studying civil engineering; I was all about concrete and streets until I visited a plant in Topeka. I was impressed by how much engineering ­actually went into bakery,” he said. Mr. Rasmussen, who is slated to graduate in 2015, is scheduled to present at BakingTech 2014. He will be speaking to attendees on the importance of attracting and retaining more young professionals to the industry.

Lead, don’t manage

A key for your bakery to develop a strong workforce is placing an emphasis on leadership rather than management. There is a difference. “A leader is more than someone who just directs traffic,” Mr. Brixey said. He suggested thinking of leadership in terms of driving a car in a race. “The race may be 500 miles, and along the way, you will need to stop for gas,” he noted. “If you manage day to day, or based on short-term goals, you will bypass a gas station.”

Teaching personnel such as line supervisors how to think beyond the day-to-day is critical. When supervisors are engaged, enabled and empowered, they will, in turn, treat their charges in the same way, said Lonnie Kempf, manufacturing consultant, The Long Co., Chicago, in his presentation, “Engaging Our Supervisors for Success” at BakingTech 2013.

Line supervisors, many of whom have been promoted up from among their peers, are often tasked with more responsibility than anyone in the plant; tasks include conflict resolution, food safety, employee evaluations, training, waste reduction and much more. And 60% of front line supervisors fail within two years of being placed in that new role, Mr. Kempf noted.

The first step is creating the perception that a line supervisor is a valid member of management. In doing this, managers empower supervisors to take ownership. “The bottom line is that no one can mandate ownership. They have to want to buy it,” Mr. Kempf said. By vesting supervisors as members of management, they will be held to a higher standard and equipped with the necessary skills to become leaders.

“We should be looking at improving and training our supervisors in the same way we look to improve our plants and with the same urgency,” Mr. Kempf advised.

Commercial wholesale baking is a results-based industry. When supervisors know what they will be measured by, they — and the company as a whole — will better reach long-term goals rather than surviving each day. It is important to look at results both qualitatively (managerial and communication skills) and quantitatively (key process indicators).

One way to “stop for gas,” as Mr. Brixey suggested, is to involve supervisors in the company’s strategic and long-term planning initiatives, including three- and five-year goals. When supervisors are treated as part of the management team, they adopt the goals of the company as their own. This approach can pull them out of the “survival mode” of the day to day and encouraging them to think in terms of the bigger picture, thus turning them into leaders.

Getting the win

Leaders can be found in the classroom, across the desk in an interview or right on the plant floor. Regardless of the talent pool, it is important to know what to look for in a leader. Work ethic, drive and passion can often go as far as, if not farther than, a degree on the wall. As someone who worked his way up to direct engineering activities at one of the nation’s largest bakeries with no more than an associate’s degree in business, Mr. Brixey is keenly aware of the skills that make a great leader.

“I have had the opportunity to speak to several graduating classes at AIB, and I always say it’s about the passion,” Mr. Brixey explained. “It’s about having passion and being able to identify people who have passion.” This is the key quality that Mr. Brixey identifies as the “refuse to lose.” The line workers with passion will be the cream that rises to the top.

Collaboration with line staff creates a win-win on the production floor. Identifying workers who have goals and drive that align with the company opens the doors for engaging partnerships that help workers hone their skills and get results for the business.

Sometimes the best way to find those passionate workers, Mr. Kempf suggested, involves walking the plant floor. Whether it is the owner, the CEO or the vice-president of operations, upper-level managers should monitor production and interact with line worker. “If you don’t communicate your vision for the company, how can you expect your employees to have one at all?” he asked.

When line workers and supervisors understand the company’s vision and objectives, life in the bakery becomes more than task-oriented. Life in the bakery becomes part of a baker’s fabric, and it ­becomes the reason the that next generation will want to join this industry ... and want to stay.