Shaking hands of two business people

We’ve all heard it many times before: the manufacturing industry is on the verge of a major talent shortage. The Baby Boomers are starting to retire, and the younger generations aren’t lining up to take their place. Over the next several years, as the retirement pace increases, this problem will get worse.

This issue has come up repeatedly in our many conversations with experts from different areas of the food processing and packaging industry, and we’ve learned about the various ways companies are working to solve it, for example, by partnering with high schools, colleges, and technical schools to offer programs that teach specialized skills.

But the solution doesn’t stop at recruitment. Once the industry attracts fresh talent, they need to ensure their new workforce has the support they need to succeed.

For the past few months, I’ve been interviewing members of the FPSA Young Professionals Group, a group started earlier this year to give the industry’s younger generation an opportunity to network, share experiences, and discuss the challenges they face. The interviewees come from diverse backgrounds and work in all different areas of the industry.

But, when I’ve ask about the biggest challenge they face as a young professional in the food processing and packaging industry, their answers have all been variations on a common theme.

Read on to hear what four members of the FPSA YPG group consider the greatest challenge for the next generation of food processing and packaging industry workers and their ideas for how the industry and the employees can work together to overcome this challenge.

What is your biggest challenge as a young professional in the food industry?

The common theme across all the young professionals’ answers to this question is the challenge of gaining trust and credibility.

Alicia Shoulders, product specialist, Provisur Technologies:

In general, the biggest challenge is getting people to trust you. A lot of people have been in the industry for 25 or 30 years, and then a young buck comes in who has maybe 5 or 10 years experience. And, while they probably don’t know as much as a 30-year industry veteran, they still know enough to provide the answers customers are looking for. But, it can be tough to trust a new person when you’ve been talking to the same person for 25 years.

Jacob Yates, national sales manager, Poly-clip System:

Trying to overcome the hurdles of old relationships that are still out there. There are people who have been in the industry for a long time, and they have 20- or 30-year relationships that are hard to get around as a younger person. It’s tough to get people to understand that things are moving in a certain direction, and they need to adapt and change or you’ll get left behind.

Patrick McGady, national sales manager, Handtmann:

The biggest challenges I’ve faced as a young professional are pre-judgements about credibility — and credibility comes with experience. The people we’re trying to sell technology to have come up through the ranks of their own plants. They’ve often been in the same facilities for years, so they know their business and our industry very well. When you’re new to the industry and trying to sell a technology to improve what they’re doing, you need to build a layer of credibility in order for them to listen to you. And whether you’re new to the industry or new to a role within the industry, my experience is that listening and learning from other perspectives is often the best way to build credibility.

People talk about Millennials and immediate gratification, but you can’t expedite credibility. It’s not something you provide. It’s is a belief others have about you – and building and maintaining credibility is a long haul process that you are in for your career.

Camilla Howard, marketing manager for Unitherm Food Systems:

When I first joined, I noticed that the industry is very male-dominant. I also quickly discovered that most had been in the industry for a long time.

These established professionals carry a lot of clout and have established relationships. They know everything there is to know, and not only about their own product line. It’s hard to enter the industry as someone new. You’re constantly questioned.

There’s also some resistance to new ideas because things have been done in the same way for so long. As young professionals, we can take what we’ve learned in previous industries or in school and introduce new things. But sometimes that’s difficult. It’s about building credibility and experience so that one day you’ll be seen as equal.

How do you overcome this challenge?

As for getting to that point of credibility, the YPG members recommend listening to and learning from the experts, and also looking for ways to provide value.

Jacob Yates:

Every time you show up to a meeting, bring some kind of value to the table. It can be small, but bring something to the table every time you show up to a group or meeting to help validate why you’re there. Show that you have ideas.

Patrick McGady:

You’re getting into an industry that has a lot of legacy and experience in it. If you think in the first few years that you’ll be teaching them anything about the industry, then you’re going to be disappointed. Your role is to listen and learn and build your experience based on what they’re teaching you. You aren’t going to go into a meeting with someone who’s been doing this for 40 years and wow them with anything about the industry. And by listening, learning, and helping you will also gain credibility, earn respect, and build the foundation of great success.

Camilla Howard:

I focus on educating myself. People don’t always ask questions they think I won’t have the answer to. So sometimes I just give answers without being prompted or share something new and exciting that they might not know.

I’m speaking mostly about what I do when I’m at trade shows or during client trials because that’s where I interact one-on-one with customers the most. I try to take the lead in the conversation and open with something interesting, and then ask them about how they do things and really listen to what they have to say. This balance of listening and sharing is what’s helped the most.

What advice do you have for companies bringing young people into the industry?

Finally, the group has some excellent ideas on how companies can help attract and retain the next generation of talent, starting with changing the organizational mindset to be open to new ideas.

Jacob Yates:

Be open minded, collaborate, and see the best of both ways of thinking. You’ll get better results by working together. Also, the younger generation doesn’t like to be micro-managed. Some companies have taken the approach of trust and letting workers do their job.

It falls back on the leadership of the company to show interest in the younger generation. They have to have an open mindset and move forward with the times with new ideas and concepts.

Patrick McGady:

Millennials have been raised with different technology at our disposal than any generation before us. Because of that, we do things differently. Different doesn’t mean bad, just different. So it’s important for people on both sides of the generation line to understand both positions – and accept that if each does things differently, but creates the quality outcome that’s needed, it’s quite alright.

At Handtmann, we have employees with many years of experience. It is sometimes helpful to remind them of their youth, when “The Greatest Generation” before them was talking about how different they were. None of us were lazy when we started, just different. That’s been true for generations.

A fundamental principle of sustainable organizations is that both youth and experience are required:

  • Youth for its energy, insights and willingness to look beyond the status quo.
  • Experience for the understanding and institutional knowledge needed to manage the risks of change wisely.

Camilla Howard:

Hire them fresh out of college and teach them. Everyone appreciates the company that gave them their first job, and there’s a lot to be said for that.

The benefits go both ways. You’re going to invest time, money, and training into someone who’s hungry to learn, looking to build a career, and wants to be advised. If you put in that time when they’re younger, in return you’ll get someone who wants to grow with the company long-term. Be supportive of the fresh perspectives they bring and challenge them to question how things are being done. That’s where you’ll find a competitive advantage with a Millennial hire.

Also, hiring younger talent shouldn’t be just a one-off. The more young professionals in the environment, the better, because we feed off of that younger energy. We recognize that we spend more time with our colleagues than our peers, so it’s important that team members get along.

Work is work, but it should be an enjoyable environment. It’s good for morale. Plus, having teams that all get along and can interact and work independently but support each other when needed is huge for Millennials — and for the companies that hire them.

Alicia Shoulders:

When hiring a Millennial, lay out a career path to show them where they can go. This will persuade them to stay with the company longer. Millennials want to know where they’re going: “If I do this, how long do I have to do it and what to do I have to do to get to the next point?”

With previous generations, you just worked hard and waited for an opportunity to come up. Millennials want specific tasks, so you need to set a path and goals that are achievable. They think, “If I don’t know where I’m going, I might as well go somewhere else and do something different.” Whereas, if they have goals, they’ll think, “If I work here for this many years, and I do a good job, then I have a chance to move to this.” And I don’t think that’s just a Millennial thing. Other people want that, too.

The food processing and packaging industry needs fresh talent, and young professionals are looking for careers where they can flourish. These interviews suggest that the opportunities are there, but that there’s plenty of room for improvement when it comes to nurturing younger employees so they can build the credibility and gain the trust that will lead to success.

In the next article in this series, we’ll look at some of the different ideas Millennials have about work and how the food industry can adapt to the ideas and compete with tech companies for the best and brightest.