The labor shortage across the U.S. manufacturing base is a worrisome reality for many industries, and the dairy processing industry is no exception. According to “Creating pathways for tomorrow’s workforce today: Beyond reskilling in manufacturing” — a 2021 report from Deloitte and The Manufacturing Institute — 77% of surveyed U.S. manufacturers said they will have ongoing difficulties in attracting and retaining workers in 2021 and beyond.

There are myriad reasons for the current shortage — including but not limited to factors tied to the COVID-19 pandemic and a rise in the number of retiring workers — and there are no easy solutions. However, dairy companies that adopt some best practices in hiring, training, and retaining plant employees will have an edge.

Attract attention

Before any hiring can take place, dairy processors must attract the attention of prospective employees, of course. However, almost all companies, including dairy processing operations, “struggle with breaking the traditional hiring practices of ‘post and advertise, and they will come,’ and ‘pay more than your competitor, and they will come,’” notes Sean Hart, CEO of The Powers Co., a management consulting firm based in Atlanta and Penfield, N.Y.

Dairy processors could boost the appeal of job postings by identifying — and considering — skill sets that cross industries, says Venae Watts, fifth-generation butter maker and co-owner of Minerva, Ohio-based Minerva Dairy.

“The most common mistake is listing the name of the job and years of experience [required],” she adds. “For example, ‘I am hiring a butter maker and would like three years of experience.’ Applicants with skillsets that align with butter-making but [who] have never made butter would not apply.”

Processors need to consider many other factors, too, when attempting to build interest in current processing plant openings, Hart says. Most important, companies must define the work environment clearly for prospective employees. In addition, they should be transparent regarding job expectations and opportunities for advancement.

“There should be no surprises to you or the potential candidates you are seeking,” he stresses.

Dairy processing employers also need to understand that many of today’s potential plant employees are looking for flexibility and more balance in today’s environment, Hart says. Childcare, for example, is harder to come by and more expensive than it was in the recent past.

“Successful employers differentiate themselves in the market by offering more than a long, unpredictable workday or workweek,” he notes.

Looking abroad is yet another option, suggests Raymond G. Lahoud, Esq., chair of the Immigration Practice Group at Norris McLaughlin, P.A., a law firm based in Bridgewater, N.J. However, many dairy companies do not know where to start here.

“There are simply not enough U.S. workers able and willing to work in industries such as the dairy industry, regardless of pay or health and safety standards,” he says. “As a result, the need for more foreign skilled and unskilled foreign talent is now more important than ever.”

Visa programs, although limited, are one available avenue. They are often disregarded by employers because of their associated planning, organization and compliance measures, Lahoud notes.

“With a solid approach, however, a dairy company could implement these U.S. visa options,” he says. “Moreover, to improve the visa programs specific to the dairy production industry, manufacturing leaders can communicate their employment hiring and retention concerns to their members of Congress and request the expansion of existing temporary visa programs.”

Before scheduling an interview with a potential job candidate, Watts says dairy processors should schedule a phone introduction to review the skills sets the candidate included on his or her resume. Then during the actual interview, they should explain the job requirements and unique attributes of the dairy industry. Most important, however, they should listen carefully to the interviewee to get a sense of whether or not he or she would be a good fit for the role and the industry.

“Dairy processors are a unique skilled group of individuals who are passionate about science and craftsmanship,” she points out. “It is OK to pass on a potential employee if they are not a good fit. Current employees are very important and deserve the right person to join their team.”

Proper onboarding is crucial

Once the decision is made to go forward with a new hire, it is time for onboarding. And a “great onboarding process” is crucial, suggests Phil Strazzulla, founder and CEO of Select Software Reviews, Cambridge, Mass.

“A strong onboarding process has been proven to increase productivity by over 70% and employee retention by over 80%,” he explains. “Employees get up to speed faster and become more invested so they stick around.”

To ensure any new hires get the training they need for their particular role — and even their individual learning styles — Strazzulla recommends pairing an employee management system with a learning management system.

Hart adds that supervisors, managers and other plant-level leaders should all participate in onboarding (as well as in the interview process).

“It’s not uncommon to hear from new team members that they have never seen or met the plant manager or higher-level leadership,” he points out. “Companies that are known to struggle with hiring and retaining good people are those where this has become a secondary priority on most leaders’ dairy calendars.”

As part of onboarding/training, new plant personnel should also be informed about the culture of both the dairy industry and the dairy team on which they now work, Watts says.

“A majority of new employees are crossing industries and do not have depth of knowledge of the dairy industry,” she notes. “As dairy processors, we tend to follow normal plant personnel training as other industries would train. … Taking the time to properly train and prepare the employee on the dairy industry and the processing plant they have just joined increases depth of knowledge, which leads to improved retention.”

Training related to understanding, accepting, developing and protecting cultural and gender diversity is highly important, too, Lahoud adds.

And don’t forget about those new employees after the initial onboarding/training. Strazzulla recommends regular follow-ups that will not only help the employee, but also help improve the onboarding process.

“Get feedback from new hires multiple times — two weeks after the onboarding, then again at four weeks, six months and a year,” he advises. “This seems extreme, but as time goes on, gaps in the training may be exposed that were previously unknown.”

Retain them

All of the work in attracting, hiring and training a new plant employee is for naught if that person opts to leave for greener pastures only weeks or months down the road. So concentrated efforts on the part of plant management for retaining new — and existing — employees are critical.

“Staff retention begins and ends with the leaders who are directly responsible for how employees are engaged and interacted with at the front line of business operations daily,” Hart says. “This includes all connection points — from the greeting that a leader gives an employee when they first hit the floor to the ‘thank you’ they give an individual for overcoming challenges faced during the shift.”

The emphasis should be on understanding what motivates and inspires plant employees — beyond monetary incentives — to show up every day, he adds. Whether the employee envisions his or her role as a “stepping stone to a long-term career-oriented position” or simply an opportunity to earn income, those connection points still matter.

“Most employees want to operate with a sense of purpose and belonging,” Hart points out. “The worse an individuals’ perceived experience may be, the higher the probability they will want more money for their time,” he adds, citing a 2013 report from Harvard Business Review that jibes with that statement.

“Even those who highlight the motivational effects of money accept that pay alone is not sufficient,” the report states.

It all boils down to the creation of a culture where all employees feel they are a valuable part of the entire process, Watts says.

It is time for front-line leaders to understand what their roles really are, Hart adds. They should ask how they could engage their employees in a way that maximizes their performance and keeps them coming back to work every day.

“This is not about making employees feel ‘happy’ every day,” he stresses. “This is about ensuring employees are engaging in a manner that fosters a safe, trusting, welcoming environment where individuals are encouraged to be the best versions of themselves, despite the internal or external challenges they may face. That’s a real retention strategy.”