Recruiting the next generation of workers is one of the biggest challenges facing the food industry today. Processors, packagers, OEMs — companies across the board are struggling to deal with a talent shortage as more of the workforce retires, and as tech companies with glitzy offices and outrageous perks compete for the same crop of new graduates.
To learn more about how companies can connect with new members of the workforce, specifically in the field of engineering, we spoke with Patrick Devanney, Associate Director in the Engineering Career Center at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC). He focuses on helping chemical, industrial, mechanical, and electrical engineering students find opportunities and brand themselves accordingly.
Devanney is passionate about helping students. Before taking his current position at UIC, Devanney was an Assistant Director in the Feld Career Center at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business. His previous accomplishments include building a mentoring program for adult learners and managing a professional networking group.
But, in his former life, Devanney did a stint in the food industry. He was on the Package, Design and Development team at Cadbury Schweppes, where he focused on improving administrative processes. “It was my first taste of the food industry, and confectionery in particular, albeit on the back end. I was helping my team with special projects ranging from building sales racks to streamlining budgetary and SAP processes” he says.
Having spent time on both sides, Devanney is uniquely qualified at bringing students and employers together and helping them make the most of those interactions. He’s always on the lookout for what he calls, “the next best employer to hire our students,” a quest that brought him to PROCESS EXPO last September.
“I found PROCESS EXPO by doing exactly what I coach students and clients to do, look in your backyard,” Devanney says. “I noticed that McCormick Place is the largest expo center in North America, and it’s less than 5 miles away from UIC. I registered and promoted PROCESS EXPO to my students. A lot of them came, and were excited to see me there, since they had seen my emails. Many employers I met at the show have been actively engaging with UIC ever since, and I am currently working with a few to provide info sessions, pop-up events and class visits in the spring.”
How the food industry can more actively recruit engineers
Devanney’s goal is to help UIC engineering students connect with prospective employers, who may not be aware of the UIC College of Engineering. One of the challenges he runs into is that, despite the huge need for engineers throughout the supply chain, members of the food industry don’t do much recruiting in the college.
For example, Devanney recalls a conversation he had with representatives of one of the world’s biggest meat and poultry processors. “They were on campus recruiting for marketing,” he says. “I said, ‘Excellent! I’m so glad you’re already thinking of UIC, and the College of Business is great. Now, tell me about your supply chain processes. Do you have industrial engineers on your staff? What about chemical engineers?’ Afterward, they realized that they should start considering UIC for engineering.”
We heard a similar story from Len Roche, a process engineer at Seiberling and member of the FPSA Young Professionals Group. He told us in an interview that although he went to career fairs and took advantage of networking opportunities at the University of Wisconsin (where he went to school), he didn’t even hear about the need for engineers in the food industry until he interviewed with his company.
Both Devanney and Roche think that part of the problem is the misconception that engineering students, particularly chemical engineering students, only want to go into the oil and gas industry. But, Devanney points out, chemical engineers work in a variety of areas. “The chemical engineering curriculum exposes students to more than just oil and gas. Our students are math-oriented problem solvers, equipped with the tools to work in industries and job functions across the board. There’s consulting, waste management, sustainability, fluid technology, adhesives, food and beverage, project management, manufacturing, process control, process and product design, solids technology, mixing and blending technologies, and separation technologies like distillation, evaporation and absorption. The degree is quite versatile.”
Dr. Alan Zdunek, Clinical Assistant Professor and Director of Undergraduate Studies in the UIC Department of Chemical Engineering says “chemical engineers have been referred to as ‘universal engineers' for the breadth of their scientific and technical skills. Chemical engineers apply chemistry, physics, and math to the industrial scale production of chemicals, microelectronics, pharmaceuticals, polymers, and food.”
Above all, Devanney says, engineering students love solving problems, something that transcends industry. “If there are inefficiencies, they want to find the solution, while also making the world a better place,” he says.
Here are some ways companies can successfully engage with engineering students.
Participate in networking events
Don’t limit your outreach to marketing and food science students — make your way over to the engineering department as well. This will help you connect with local talent. UIC is in the West Loop of Chicago, which is situated less than 10 miles from more than 400 corporate headquarters, 34 of which are Fortune 500 and many of which are connected to the food industry.
Devanney also recommends employers get creative with the ways they reach out to students. It doesn’t always have to just be a career fair, and employers don’t have to be actively hiring. For example, UIC recently hosted its Third Annual Chemical Engineering Industry Day, a partnership between the UIC Engineering Career Center and the UIC Department of Chemical Engineering.
It was the largest yet, with 20 employers registered including Smithfield Foods, ProLeiT, Unilever, and South Chicago Packing. Devanney recruited ProLeiT and Smithfield Foods to participate in Industry Day while at PROCESS EXPO. “Industry Day affords employers the opportunity to get to know our students before committing to a career fair, and also allows for employers to learn about other employers interested in UIC’s chemical engineering students.”
Employers can also connect with engineering students via pop-up events, info sessions, student organization meetings, and company tours.
Provide opportunities for internships or co-operative education
Internships and co-ops are excellent ways for you to get to know students…and for students to get to know you.
Devanney encourages his students to complete at least two internships before they graduate. If possible, he recommends they sign up for a co-op, which is like an internship, but longer — generally 10-15 hours per week during the academic year, for which the students are paid. This arrangement gives students and employers even more time to get to know one another, and Devanney notes that it leads to many hires.
“One of our biggest selling points as a university is that many of our students work while going to school. They are learning time management, relationship management, customer service, and hiring/firing/training procedures. For employers, that’s a gain in business value. It’s an accessible pipeline of talented students with a solid work ethic right around the corner, which is money back into their pockets at the end of the day,” he says.
Understand that students want more than just a job
Devanney also recommends employers seek to understand the next generation on a higher level. Just like Millennial consumers are driving the popularity of food brands that are transparent and mission-driven, Millennial workers want more than just a job that pays the bills. They want a job they can feel good about.
They also want to work where they live. “If companies want talent, they need to realize this,” Devanney says. “That’s why GE moved its headquarters from suburban Connecticut to downtown Boston, and it’s why McDonald’s headquarters is moving to Chicago. Suburban campuses aren’t sustainable for young people. Companies that really shine in the next 50 years will be the ones that move to where the young talent is going, and this is already happening now. Amazon, if you’re reading this, Chicago’s talented workforce would gladly welcome you here.”
Understand the needs of the multigenerational workforce
Another issue that came up in our interview series with members of the FPSA Young Professionals Group are the challenges of today’s multigenerational workforce. The generations working side by side are vastly different, especially in their use of technology.
“The world is wired differently now,” Devanney says. “Virtual and augmented reality applications are already here in the food industry. We saw this at the PROCESS EXPO. I do believe it is imperative for companies to adapt and adopt these technologies, while also recognizing the talents of a multigenerational workforce. Mentorship programs can bridge skills and harness and apply the energy that young people have into teaching older workers, while providing older workers the opportunity to share their knowledge.” Devanney witnessed these interactions having built a mentoring program for adult learners, and has recently launched the College of Engineering Mentoring Program at UIC.
He also coaches his students to think about their relationships with their professors (who are members of a different generation) and use those relationships as a model for moving into their first job. “It can be a testing ground for managing relationships and expectations with someone older,” he says.
How engineering students can get into the food industry
Of course, the onus isn’t entirely on companies. Students also need to be proactive in finding and taking advantage of opportunities. It begins with asking questions. Where is the food industry heading? What are the trends? Where are the people in the food industry hanging out, both at live events and virtually? Are there LinkedIn groups to join, follow, and post content?
To do that, Devanney recommends students participate in career fairs, industry days, and other events offered at their university. He also encourages them to do some good old fashioned legwork. “I tell students, ‘All you need is time and Google.’ It sounds so basic, but finding a great job is often a matter of searching, having an open mind, and realizing that every new person they meet could be the one to introduce them to their next opportunity.”
He relates one story of a student who wanted an internship at a particular company. So, he rode the elevator in that building and talked to people and landed an internship. “A lot of it is just putting one foot in front of another and trusting your intuition. I think it’s easy for an engineering student to ignore the gut and focus solely on the raw data. But gut data is raw data. It’s absolutely critical in the job search, “ Devanney says.
If your company is looking for engineering talent, now’s the time to start thinking about recruiting efforts for 2018. If you’re looking to expand your talent pool from the Chicagoland area, consider participating in one of the many UIC College of Engineering events — career fairs, industry days, pop-up events and more — that allow you to connect with one of the nearly 5,000 engineering students on campus. You can find more information about opportunities on the UIC website or by contacting Devanney directly.