In his Jan. 24 President’s Breakfast talk at Dairy Forum — themed “What is New, Now and Next for Dairy?” — Michael Dykes, D.V.M., president and CEO of the International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA), told attendees that “people will determine our success” going forward.

“I think people are going to become more important to us, if they aren't already, than customers,” he said. “Because if we don't have the people to make the products, we won't have customers and we can't keep customers.”

The problem, Dykes pointed out, is that there just are not enough people to fill current job openings in the United States, including unfilled positions in dairy processing facilities.  

“The U.S. has the lowest population growth rate in history, not just [for] one year but for the last 10 years,” he said. “More people [are] dying, and we have fewer people being born in the developing world. We have a people issue. Sustainability, health and wellness — with research, many of these other things we can fix with money; we can't create more people.”

Dykes predicted that immigration reform — led by someone who’s “bold enough to step forward and lead us through” — will pass within the next five years as one way to help address the issue.

“The future of the dairy industry and our ability to remain globally competitive depends on how we develop the workforce of the future, cultivate the next generation of leaders, and empower and support diversity in leadership roles,” he added.

Take action now

Immigration reform — if it ever happens — certainly could help address the workforce crisis within the dairy processing industry and countless other industries. But dairy processors could take meaningful steps now to tackle the “people problem.”

In a Jan. 24 panel discussion at IDFA’s Dairy Forum — “Building Organizations for the Future of the Dairy Industry” — a handful of dairy industry executives shared some best practices for attracting and retaining employees.

On the recruitment front, word of mouth and referrals are always best, noted Ron Dunford, president and CEO of Schreiber Foods. However, existing employees must be satisfied with their jobs for this process to work. Dairy companies, therefore, must find ways to better engage the people who are already in place, he said.

And companies must act as “career accelerants” to retain existing employees, noted Keith Schroeder, CEO of High Road Craft Ice Cream.

“Employees, in general, want to co-create,” he stressed.

Employers must remember that their employees have aspirations, Schroeder added, and also be willing to champion employee empowerment.

The COVID-19 pandemic has created its own workforce issues, too, and “has taught us that anxiety is real,” noted Sheila Murty, executive vice president, people and culture for Tillamook County Creamery Association. She advised managers to “listen intently” to their employees and trial/adapt to meet their evolving needs. Leaders also must know how to connect employees to mental health and other resources.

Those suggestions are just the tip of the iceberg, of course. Need additional best practices for attracting and retaining people in these trying times? Dairy Foods recently covered the topic in depth. Check the article out here.