CHARLOTTE, NC — Valerie Oswalt, president of Campbell Snacks, a division of Camden, NJ-based Campbell Soup Co., and Vi Alexander Lyles, mayor of Charlotte, NC, are getting creative when it comes to workforce development. Ms. Oswalt and Ms. Lyles spoke to the ways the snack company is partnering with local government and incentivizing employees during SNAXPO21, held in Charlotte, NC, Aug. 22-24. Both women tackled the issue from multiple angles.

“I think we have a unique opportunity in this industry to make manufacturing attractive again in America,” Ms. Oswalt said. “Labor is by far the biggest challenge for all of us, and we’re trying to address it.”

The changing priorities of the available workforce as well social deficiencies exacerbated by the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic have companies partnering with local governments, like Charlotte, NC, to recruit employees. Campbell Snacks has a large footprint in Charlotte, with an office, one of its fastest growing manufacturing facilities and a major warehouse totaling more than 1,600 employees all in the Greater Charlotte area.

“Government and business is integral to the success of the city, so we work closely with our business community to recruit but also retain the business that exists in our city,” Ms. Lyles said. “We have to look at the intersectionality of preparing those in our community to work and allowing them to be employed at the companies that are located here.”

To do that, the city of Charlotte’s business retention team developed an apprenticeship program that works with the community college to develop training programs that enable people to move immediately into a workplace.

“We have people in this community — primarily black and brown people — who don’t have the education or resource to participate in the economy, and it’s the city’s goal to increase their participation by training and education in a targeted way that people can see a result,” Ms. Lyles explained. “It’s no good to say, ‘Go to school and come out, and then find a job.’ We are changing that paradigm to ‘we have a job, and we will train you for it.’ ”

Beyond training, some of the needs to entice employees can be very practical, such as transportation, another way the public sector in Charlotte is trying to bring people to work. Ms. Lyles described affordable transportation as the third leg of the stool to lift people out of poverty: a decent place to live, sustainable pay and a way to get to work.

“If a worker in manufacturing gets out of the second or third shift, and we don’t have a bus at midnight that will take them home, then they will have to pay an enormous amount of their income for transportation to and from work,” she said.

With that in mind, Charlotte is investing in its rail and bus transit system to support its growing population and make it easier for potential employees to gain access to jobs and training.  

Campbell Snacks is also looking at other practical needs it can address to ensure it stays competitive with the changing labor market. Ms. Oswalt said the company is reevaluating wages to ensure they are competitive and offering sign-on and retention bonuses at some facilities. The bakery and snack producer is also ensuring prospective employees are aware of the company’s benefit package, that includes perks such as its free tuition program.

“It’s one of the most competitive out there,” Ms. Oswalt said.

Ms. Oswalt and Ms. Lyles are also passionate about another dimension of the workforce challenge: supporting women and people of color in the workplace. This often means employers need to provide more flexibility and practical support to their workforce.

“During the pandemic, companies across the United States saw more women leave the workforce than decades prior,” Ms. Oswalt said. “It was really painful to watch because we weren’t where we should be in the first place, and now we have this setback because women still take on a lot of the childcare and domestic duties. With so many children at home during the pandemic, that led a lot of working moms to pivot and opt out of the workforce.”

Referencing the work she’s doing as a EdD candidate at the University of Southern California, Ms. Oswalt described the trajectory of how women fall out of the workforce. While 50% of the workforce coming out of college are women, the percentage of women at every step of the ladder decreases: 30% at mid-level, 20% at senior level and only 6% of Fortune 500 companies having female chief executive officers. She attributed this to many different obstacles women encounter from the societal challenges of bias, institutional roadblocks like lack of flexibility at work or even individual obstacles like lack of mentors.

“Over time, the obstacles are like water eroding a rock, so you start with these great ambitions but for different reasons, you hit these obstacles and you may choose not to progress,” she said. “And even when women choose to pursue these executive level roles, they exit at four times the rate of men.”

To retain these workers, companies must meet women where they are and provide them the flexibility and support they need to stay. Ms. Lyles agreed, suggesting that onsite childcare, parental leave and even leave for elder care can be empowering to minority workers.

“Unless you support women or people of color from the moment they walk through the door, they will never make it to the c-suite or the board,” she said.

And those companies that do meet those needs, will be rewarded.

“The evidence is so clear: Companies with more diverse teams -- women and people of color -- your business results are better, period,” Ms. Oswalt said. “So why wouldn’t companies invest in having more diversity and more women at the table and more perspectives at the table because when companies win, we all win because we invest in our communities.”

These diverse teams bring different perspectives, which Ms. Lyles pointed out were the keys to their success.

“If you’re surrounded by like people, you only get the same result,” she said. “Diversity brings different perspectives and opportunities, and you’ll learn more about your workforce.”

And in these challenging times that require constant pivoting and quick thinking, she pointed out that every company could use more of that.

“When you think about how agile we need to be now, diverse teams solve problems better and quicker,” Ms. Oswalt said. “It’s more important now than ever.”