The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has impacted baking in many ways, but its effects have been felt perhaps nowhere more than on the industry’s workforce. Bakers today are struggling mightily to hire and retain workers, and the issue is expected to persist over the next few years.

In the American Baking Association’s (ABA) and American Society of Baking’s (ASB) “Workforce in US Commercial Baking Industry” study, conducted by Cypress Research, nearly 100% of bakers said finding and developing talent is a moderate or significant challenge for both hourly skilled and unskilled production workers. For skilled positions that number is up from 89% in 2016.

Two-thirds of bakers reported a high or severe shortage for machine operator positions, up from 40% in 2016. Fifty-eight percent of bakers reported a high or severe shortage for maintenance and engineering jobs as well. Significant shortages were also apparent in unskilled production positions such as production helpers, loaders/shippers and sanitation workers.

Today’s labor force has many choices of where to work, and the baking plant isn’t always the most attractive to potential employees.

“Our environment in the bakeries isn’t the best,” noted Mark Salman, president of Middleby Food Processing, at the ASB BakingTech 2022 Trends in Automation panel.

“It’s hot, there’s a lot of physical work, it’s loud. So you have to focus on those areas where you can attract people to come and work for us rather than some other place. And if you’re lucky in attracting them, make sure you keep them and give them comfort.”

This struggle to attract workers is reflected in the “Workforce in US Commercial Baking Industry” study, with 92% of baking companies reporting making bakery manufacturing an appealing career for skilled production workers to be a moderate or significant challenge, and 95% reporting the same for unskilled positions.

Bakers looking to expand their workforce must understand that the relationship between companies and employees has completely changed, said Bill Quigg, president of More Than a Bakery, Versailles, Ky. The days of strict attendance policies and telling employees the exact days and times they must work are over.

“The dynamic has really shifted so that it’s almost an Uber workforce, because it’s at the discretion of people if they want to work and when they want to work,” he said.

Many people today don’t view jobs as anything more than something they’ll try out, Mr. Quigg emphasized. And if they don’t like it, they’re gone.

“You’ll never hear from them; you’ll never see them. They’ll just completely ghost,” he said. “COVID shifted the dynamic for people to say, ‘If this is a job that I don’t like or won’t like for a very long time, I’ll just try something new.’ It’s given people the ability, which can honestly be a positive thing, to find what’s really right for them. Unfortunately, that doesn’t necessarily always involve people aspiring to work in a bakery manufacturing environment.”

Automating out of labor troubles

Today’s worker shortage has forced bakers to reconsider their capital spending priorities.

“Post-COVID, we live in a different world. Metrics have changed,” Mr. Salman explained at the ASB panel. “Return on investment used to be the most important factor, but now there are two other metrics: return on comfort of our employees and re-employment of our resources in the bakery.”

Instead of focusing only on technology that will boost their bottom line, bakers today must consider upgrades that will also reduce their dependency on labor positions they can no longer fill.

“There’s a new element of ‘How do I really take a swing at spending my money in a way that’ll give me more capacity, more consistency and help with the real big pinch,’ ” said Rowdy Brixey, president of Brixey Engineering.

Baking & Snack’s “Automating Out of the Labor Challenge” study, conducted by Cypress Research, found that bakers understandably view automation as a way to improve product quality (90%) and increase product capacity (86%). However, 85% of respondents also see automation as mitigating labor shortages by eliminating the need for manual labor.

Some of the best tasks bakers can automate are those requiring repetitive motion or heavy lifting.

“Especially with jobs that are repetitive and can be automated, those are the ones that people generally don’t like to do,” Mr. Quigg explained. “I think the fundamental shift in the labor workforce has led us to where we are, which is where it’s really hard to find jobs that are not interesting or unique or challenging, both mentally and physically.”

Another area that’s being automated, especially among small to midsize bakeries, is mixing. Standardizing this process gives bakers greater product consistency, leading to less rework and waste.

“If you think about what impacts labor, it’s volume,” Mr. Brixey explained. “If 10% to 20% of your volume is to remake what you already made due to mixing errors, you get two benefits there: the reduction of labor and a reduction in waste.”

Baking & Snack’s study found that 16% of small to midsize bakeries and large bakeries plan to upgrade their recipe-driven mixing systems, while 18% of small to midsize bakeries that aren’t using these systems are considering purchasing them. On the packaging side, 23% of large bakeries and 22% of small to midsize bakeries are considering automating their primary packaging. These numbers are similar for secondary packaging as well (22% and 20%, respectively).

By automating repetitive and strenuous tasks, workers are moved into positions they’ll enjoy more and stay in longer.

“For so long automation was considered a bad thing because you’re replacing people,” Mr. Quigg said. “We’re not replacing people; we’re just putting them in jobs they’re more fulfilled by.”

Automating these jobs can help bakers both save on and retain labor, but they may also pose new challenges that have to be considered, Mr. Brixey noted. For example, automating the packaging or shipping process will require bakers to rethink their carrier.

“Are you going to be in boxes or baskets for the future? Are you going to have to return to those?” he asked. “Many people start to have the conversation about automating post-packaging, and they really haven’t considered if they’re in the right material handling for the long term. Automation equipment is designed very specifically for whatever your material handling is.”

This article is an excerpt from the May 2022 issue of Baking & Snack. To read the entire feature on Workplace Improvements, click here.