The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic accelerated so many trends, and the economy and society are still playing catch-up. When it comes to the labor market, it seems the pandemic exacerbated the dwindling interest in manufacturing.

We’ve been talking about the workforce gap for years, and things have only gotten worse. But our understanding of the labor crisis also has crystallized. This public health crisis — and all the crises that have come with it — has served as a catalyst for so many people, a moment when they make decisions about their life priorities and standards for what kind of work they will accept to earn a living. Nothing like a crisis to provide clarity. And so we see movements like the Great Resignation, with people knowing their worth and deciding to go for the job or career that they believe will lead them to the greatest happiness. We only get the one life, right?

This shift has been unkind to many industries, including commercial baking. We all must admit, working in bakery manufacturing — especially the production room — is hard work. The hours aren’t great, the production room isn’t inviting, and the work can be tedious and punishing on the body.

When visiting 5 Generation Bakers, McKees Rocks, Pa., I talked to the company’s founder and president, Scott Baker, about his plans for future automation. As he walked me through his semi-automated process for Jenny Lee Swirl Bread, a difficult product to automate, he pointed out the finishing process. Coating Jenny Lee Swirl Bread in cinnamon and sugar is the most labor-intensive part of the process, requiring the work of four employees, a butter bath and an enormous tub of cinnamon and sugar.

“When I automate that part of the process, my employees will be so grateful,” he said.

This crisis has shaken up the industry. Instead of saying, “We’ve always done it that way,” more companies are taking a harder look at their production and policies and  asking, “Why have we always done it that way?” It’s in addressing that question solutions may be identified.

In this issue of Baking & Snack and in season 10 of our podcast, Since Sliced Bread, you’ll find plenty of conversations around the workforce challenge. In his feature “Reinventing the Workplace,” Lucas Cuni-Mertz, Baking & Snack’s associate editor, outlines how companies are making the bakery a more inviting place to work, whether through automation or company policies. You may read all about how making the big investment in automated ingredient handling systems can take the pressure off employees’ bodies and improve product consistency in Executive Editor Dan Malovany’s feature “Eyeing the Big Picture.” And on Since Sliced Bread, you may listen to my conversations with bakers about where they’ve seen success regarding their workforces as well as how industry associations are stepping up to fill education gaps.

Those companies that reach outside of their legacy mentalities of how it’s always been done and are able to reevaluate will be the companies that attract and retain the most valuable employees.