At BEMA Convention 2021, the dominant topic onstage and in between sessions and events involved workforce challenges. Other matters such as sky-high ingredient costs, lingering COVID-19 challenges and supply chain disruptions were top-of-mind, but the sense was that these issues — though stressful, to be sure — were transient. Hiring and retaining people, however, was difficult before the pandemic and a challenge that has become more urgent as we emerge into recovery.

Jason Ward, president of AMF Bakery Systems, summed it up during the BEMA Intel panel:

“I personally think we’ll sort through these supply chain disruptions over the next few months, but the workforce issues are with us for a long time and are structural.”

The conversation wasn’t all lament. Many offered solutions. Duncan Wardle, keynote speaker and former head of innovation and creativity for Disney, reminded the industry that priorities for employment are changing for younger generations. While millennials may have asked for greater work-life balance, Generation Z is looking for meaning and will take a lower paying job for the opportunity to have purpose in their 9 to 5.

Even in a panel devoted to a supply chain update, the labor issue came up. Brad Alexander, chief operating officer, Flowers Foods, pointed out that new employees want to know a company’s sustainability plan.

“The new generation wants to know the cause and why they should work for a company, and if they don’t believe in your mission and vision and what you stand for, they will find someone else,” he said.

This was echoed onstage during the Ask-A-Baker panel. Mike Porter, president of New Horizons Baking Co., expressed that New Horizons’ work in sustainability has become a recruitment tool. Richard Ybarra, corporate manufacturing engineering project manager, Publix Super Markets, shared how Publix reevaluated the way it scheduled shifts to address employees’ childcare challenges, and Rod Radalia, vice president of innovation and integrity, Aunt Millie’s, challenged the industry:

“Who of us would want our children working in our plants on the production floor with the odd hours and the conditions? So I keep thinking about ways that we can improve because that will really make a difference in our industry.”

In this issue, we bring you ideas from within the bakery. You can read about how White Castle has made its bakery an attractive place to work and an employer that boasts incredible retention rates for manufacturing.

The workforce issue is complicated with potential employees reevaluating what is truly important to them after a pandemic: salaries; work-life balance; benefits like health care, family leave and childcare support; and, yes, even a mission beyond baking the best bread.

Automation is a part of the solution, and bakers are likely to be on the hunt for technology at IBIE 2022 that can help mitigate workforce headaches. Still, automation alone will not resolve the workforce challenges. But by sharing ideas at conferences like BEMA and in the pages of Baking & Snack and its digital media, I believe the industry will make headway against this perennial problem, tackling this issue from multiple directions and finding solutions… even if they are a little outside the bread box.