Through an internship program at Flowers Foods, Robert Benton [center], the company’s senior vice-president and chief manufacturing officer, recruited Amber Mangiaracino, now director of operations at the Lenexa, KS, bakery, and Drew Ladd, a superintendent at the same facility. .

It might be hard to imagine a drawback to an improved economy. Then again, anyone tasked with filling positions when the pickins’ are slim might tell a different story.

In an employees’ market, a slew of manufacturing job openings are going unfilled — and that comes as no surprise to the American Bakers Association (ABA)’s Human Resources Committee, who saw the writing on the wall a number of years back. “We realized when we were in the middle of the recession and there was an open workforce that we were still having challenges attracting talent,” said Robb MacKie, ABA president and CEO. “The thinking was that when the economy turns around, it’s really going to be a problem.”

For the baking industry, caught between an aging workforce and a lack of new prospects, there lies a gaping hole — the workforce gap.

Members of the industry who live it every day recognized this gap and did something about it. To that end, ABA’s Human Resources Committee, in conjunction with the American Society of Baking (ASB), commissioned Cypress Research Associates to conduct a year-long comprehensive study to collect data from bakers, suppliers and broad manufacturing about the challenges and solutions for attracting, training and retaining skilled, hourly production workers.

“We didn’t want another ‘sad story’ report that would just sit on shelves,” Mr. MacKie said. “This is something we’ve been talking about for more than a decade, and we needed to take the anecdotal to the empirical; we needed to get to the results.”

This is not a generational study. It’s not about millennials. This is about the ripple effect brought about by modern technology that’s changing the way skilled hourly employees view the work they do and their role in a company and the world at large. In order to attract, train and retain talent, the baking industry must let go of its more traditional ideologies; in short, opening minds to new workforce practices will in turn open the doors to a new crop of talent.

“This may be a challenge for some companies because it will change their paradigm on how they operate,” said Cory Martin, director, government relations, ABA. “But there are solutions out there — it will just take some willingness to change in order to address these workforce needs.”

What’s the problem?

During the year-long study, titled “The Workforce Gap in US Commercial Baking: Trends, Challenges & Solutions,” the research bore out what the task force had predicted: While the most serious gap is among hourly skilled production positions, the biggest pain point currently lies with maintenance and engineering positions. And it’s an area that Marjorie Hellmer, president of the research firm, described as “simmering” — the shortages might not get worse, but there’s certainly no sign that they will get better over the next 10 years.

Baking companies surveyed predicted that by 2025, the significant shortage of hourly skilled maintenance/engineering production staff will remain the same, and that the skilled machine operators’ gap is projected to increase by 21%. It’s a problem that, if it continues to go unaddressed, will become a serious issue, as exemplified by the current amount of turnover for these positions and the lack of programs currently in place to tackle it. “When you start looking at solutions, you see that there aren’t enough programs in place to help bakers address these challenges,” Ms. Hellmer warned. “There are deficiencies going unaddressed, and that’s contributing to the loss of employees and companies not being able to attract them.”

Ms. Hellmer pointed out that when speaking with many HR executives they explain that even a 5% turnover reduction would be a tremendous success within their companies. “When you hear 5% is the baseline, you know it’s a serious problem,” she said.

On the bright side … some companies are getting it right. As part of the study, Cypress Research released a collection of case studies in an e-book called Attracting and Retaining Skilled Talent as well as a best practices guide of solutions companies can implement. (See “Learning from the best” on the left.)

Ms. Hellmer noted that some of the first steps in closing the gap are attracting and retaining skilled workers for these positions. For generations, manufacturing workers have operated on fidelity — they came in and did their jobs with pride at the same company until retirement. As these workers retire, though, the incoming talent tends to do more job-hopping, many changing jobs up to four times in their first 10 years of employment.

“If your operating assumption is that your employees are going to stay, and then they’re leaving, it creates a whole new ball game,” Ms. Hellmer said.

Closing the workforce gap is less about generations and more about attracting the right people and, through right mix of company culture, employee engagement and proper training, keeping them in the baking industry.

Becoming attractive

Branding is something that some wholesale bakers haven’t been concerned with over the years. It has traditionally been used for building consumer relationships, and many baking companies, especially contract manufacturers, build their businesses by working behind the scenes.

But the world is a much smaller place today than 10 or 15 years ago, and workers want to feel a part of the product and company, as well as the brand’s place in the bigger picture. “The central message from companies like King’s Hawaiian, Dave’s Killer Bread and Clif Bar, isn’t about the products they make,” Ms. Hellmer suggested. “Their message is about making their customers happy and illustrating how the company contributes to the happiness and wellness of society.”

Today, when it comes to attracting employees, it’s all about branding. In fact, almost all of the study respondents indicated branding as one of the Top 5 recruitment challenges. Of the 95% who identified the challenge, 58% of them reported it as a significant one.

Although many individual companies are successfully promoting themselves as the kinds of places people want to work, the industry as a whole must also brand itself as a place where engineers and machine operators want to explore potential long-term employment.

Baking companies did indicate that branding for staffing needs was a big recruitment challenge. The study also revealed that, compared with other workforce strategies, it’s a tool that’s being grossly underutilized in addressing the workforce gap. When it comes to branding efforts, 61% of companies have used means such as website development, social media and community events for recruitment.

When looking for the lowest-hanging fruit for fulfilling staffing needs, branding is a sure shot. “With the right people in place and a bit of creativity, companies can brand themselves to attract the right employees by focusing on the company culture and the work environment,” Ms. Hellmer said.

Branding to attract talent starts with telling the right story. “How do we tell that great story of a career, a lifestyle, a lifetime in the baking industry?” Mr. MacKie asked. “We need to reach into an audience that might be interested — or may not even know they could be interested — in working for this industry,” he said.

In fact, developing robust programs to attract and keep staff seems relatively easy when compared with teaching employees the necessary skills to succeed in bakery manufacturing. “Well-established best practices exist to help companies identify and implement successful recruitment and retention strategies. But developing a pipeline through effective job skills training requires considerable financial and human resource investments for companies,” Ms. Hellmer suggested. Skills training, she said, is where some of the biggest challenges and opportunities lie.

Training up

While any company can create its own positive culture and work environment, training is an area where the industry can actually come together to mitigate the skills gap. Considering that this gap doesn’t just affect a single business but also the entire baking industry, standardized training is key.

Remember, workers today are job-hoppers who need to feel they’re making a valuable contribution to the company, the industry, the world. If they’re going to jump ship based on a corporate culture, they’ll be more likely to move within the industry when equipped with skills they can take from one baking company to another.

Training-related challenges are contributing to the skills shortage. Of those bakery executives surveyed, 87% indicated that a lack of formal skills/job training programs for new and existing employees is contributing to the skills shortage with slightly more than a quarter labeling it a “significant challenge.”

One thing to consider, Ms. Hellmer suggested, is that while training is an industry-wide issue, execution must happen at a local level. “These efforts to train must happen where the facilities are located,” she said, noting that many baking companies with enough resources are partnering with local colleges, technical schools and even high schools to develop their talent pipelines.

Flowers Foods, Thomasville, GA, partners with community colleges and technical schools to initiate recruitment efforts and sometimes even professional development programs. Partnerships like these happen locally for many Flowers plant locations. Flowers also taps talent at Kansas State University’s bakery science program for internships that often lead to full-time positions.

In Twin Falls, ID, Clif Bar Baking Company partnered with the College of Southern Idaho for training programs as it built up its workforce while also building its new facility.

“ASB is already hard at work developing programs to address the current and future workforce gap in our industry,” said Mario Somoza, chairman of ASB. “We are revamping our scholarship program to target students pursuing education in areas such as food science and engineering/manufacturing, as well as our traditional support of bakery science programs.”

Higher education and industry-related external resources present big opportunities for companies to increase and/or improve training programs. According to the study, many bakeries still rely on formal internal training. For example, just 69% of respondents offered training to hourly skilled production employees for baking industry-specific technical skills, and of those, 53% relied on formal internal programs, while a mere 16% take advantage of a third-party resource.

For machine operators, however, the companies surveyed said they rely on more informal internal training methods. In fact, 100% of the businesses cited on-the-job experience as a training strategy, closely followed by shadowing/observing others at 91%. Similarly, hourly maintenance and engineering positions received the same kind of training: on-the-job experience at 96% and shadowing/observing at 93%.

Part of the problem is that management struggles with creating training programs for positions that reach into multiple shifts and schedules, as well as finding time to initially create programs and have sufficient staff to implement them.

Rather than tossing those employees into the metaphorical deep end of the pool, industry groups such as ABA, AIB International, BEMA, ASB and the Biscuit & Cracker Manufacturers’ Association (B&CMA) can help. For example, ABA started a frontline training program that launched in June and is planned for November and again next March.

Additionally, BEMA has recently revamped its BEMA-U education program with programs such as Learn to Train that are available to companies at their own locations.

AIB International offers training courses at its headquarters in Manhattan, KS, as well as online and in locations across the country, and B&CMA offers a wealth of education online through its comprehensive correspondence course and at its annual technical conference held in the spring.

Ms. Hellmer sees it as a spider-web approach, and it starts with corporate leadership to support, fund and sustain internal and external company-driven training programs. Next is the regional support through partnerships in education, and from there comes the ­industry-wide standardization of training.

“It’s a complicated issue but one that we see having the greatest potential for the industry to come together,” Ms. Hellmer observed. “The industry needs to standardize — then customize — elements for co­mpany-specific needs.”

Today’s bakery workers want to feel not only that their hard work is appreciated but also that they are contributing to a bigger effort in the world.

Moving ahead

Despite the fact that the future looks bright for the baking industry, it also looks rather bleak when it comes to staffing. All is not lost, however, and that was the purpose of commissioning this industry study.

Through secondary research, in-depth interviews with manufacturing executives and the quantitative baking industry survey, Cypress was able to identify some of the trends, challenges and solutions for the workforce gap.

Outside-of-the-box ideas and proactive solutions are what will ease the pain. “We have to look at solutions through a different lens and understand the power of new ways to attract and retain new employees,” Ms. Hellmer suggested.

While finding and holding onto talent are obviously important, baking companies must also be willing to take the initiative to seek out the right people in ways such as tapping diverse talent pools like women, minorities and veterans. Ms. Hellmer suggested recruitment efforts also include social media, web-based application technologies, partnerships with state and local organizations and educational institutions, and internal employee referral incentive programs.

With the knowledge that training is a critical issue and workers want to be part of a bigger picture, cross-training appears as one viable solution. “We are seeing that cross-functional training doesn’t just mean moving around on the production floor, anymore,” Ms. Hellmer said. “It means getting people into different administrative and corporate-level departments and experiencing the contributions there. Training should involve everything that has to do with the company.”

Bridging the gap in the workforce will be critical to keep the industry moving forward. But it has potential for positive side effects, too. “We see branding the industry as a place people want to work and build a career as another great opportunity for the industry to come together and make it stronger overall,” Ms. Hellmer said.

To gain more insight and discuss solutions, ABA will host a workshop Oct. 7 in Las Vegas, the day before the International Baking Industry Exposition opens its doors. “This is not about rehashing what we’ve already been talking about,” Mr. Martin said. “We know the gap exists. This is a conference dedicated entirely to solutions for filling that gap.” Companies who participated in the case studies e-book will be on-hand to answer questions and share ideas for how bakeries can implement their own human resource programs.

“The good news is that there are a lot of great programs already, so we don’t have to reinvent the wheel. The challenge moving forward is being able to help share great ideas and make people aware,” Mr. Martin said.

The full report, including industry survey results, case study e-book and company best practices guide, are available on and and can be downloaded for free.