MARCO ISLAND, FLA. — Bakers have wrestled with the issue of finding and retaining production floor workers since before the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, but the current labor conditions have only further exacerbated the issue.

During the pandemic and even still, employees struggle with support like childcare. Generation Z and millennials are flipping the script on incentives to work, and a call to a more diverse and inclusive workplace has added new dimensions to hiring.

These issues combined with increased demand for ramped up production has created significant need in the industry.

“We’re going to have to offer more part-time work because there are a lot of people who don’t want to work 40 to 50 hours a week,” said Brad Alexander, chief operating officer of Flowers Foods, Thomasville, Ga., from the stage at the BEMA Convention 2021. “Traditionally, we haven’t done a lot of that, but maybe we need to because with demand for baked goods up and not many employees, we’re penalizing our good employees with overtime. They like overtime for the first few weeks, but they want some work-life balance.” 

This moment has baking companies reevaluating more than just increasing pay but also how they staff their shifts and the conditions of their production room floor.

“Who of us would want our children working in our plants on the production floor with the odd hours and the conditions,” said Rod Radalia, vice president, innovation and integrity, Aunt Millie’s Bakeries, Ft. Wayne, Ind., during the Ask-A-Baker panel at BEMA Convention 2021. “I keep thinking of ways that can improve because that will really make a difference in our industry.”

Even the challenges of the pandemic itself have reverberated, forcing baking companies to get creative to meet those issues employees are facing so employees don’t have to choose between family and employment.

“We’re looking at flex schedules, looking at who was available to fill the positions necessary to run the operations,” said panelist Richard Ybarra, corporate manufacturing engineering project manager, Publix Super Markets, St. Petersburg, Fla.. “People had their kids at home and couldn’t put them in school, and that allowed us to support them so they could continue to work. That has been key to us and retaining our associates.”

During a Supply Chain Update with BEMA and the American Bakers Association, Mr. Alexander also spoke to how Flowers Foods has reevaluated its own environment for employees, whether that’s the literal environment of the production room or the metaphorical environment for building a career at Flowers Foods.

“We’re trying to think of everything, from schedules to how do we make it cooler in the plant to how can we onboard them better and train them better,” he said. “How can we give positive feedback? How can we show them a career path? How can we ensure our pay is fair?”

A common theme in these conversations was Generation Z, who experts caution want more than just a good paycheck. They also want their job to provide them with purpose and work for a company they believe in. As baking companies look to attract new workers, they’ve used their sustainability programs and charitable giving to show that employees can also find mission in manufacturing.

Another panelist, Mike Porter, president of New Horizons Baking Co., Norwalk, Ohio, said that while the bakery doesn’t promote its sustainability efforts externally as a co-manufacturer, it does communicate those goals to current and new employees.

“As employees are brought onboard to the team, we share our sustainability efforts, and it really does a lot,” he said. “That’s another way to attract talent in a different way, so communicating sustainability efforts is important.”

And bakers expressed the desire and the work they have done to improve the diversity of their teams, and the benefit they recognized diversity can bring.

“If you don’t diversity your team, your thinking will be similar to the way it has been in the past,” said panelist Brandon Heiser, president and chief operating officer, Roskam Baking Co., Grand Rapids, Mich.  “We don’t need to hire someone who has the same experience or thinking as us.”

Mr. Radalia expressed the value different backgrounds — whether due to race, gender, age or any other difference — can bring in a meeting with an example of conversations about sustainability programs.

“As the company brings on younger people and their awareness of the environment and sustainability are greater, and they’re in these meetings, they aren’t afraid to call it out and ask what more we can do with sustainability,” he said.

From intentional hiring to multilingual languages signage and training materials, baking companies are sharing ideas about how to infuse their workforces with new energy and new ideas.