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WCMA Notes: Labor Market, Not Supermarket, Poses Most Immediate Challenge for Cheesemakers

Offered by Rebekah Sweeney, WCMA Communications and Policy Manager

Wisconsin is experiencing something of a business boom right now.

This month, lawmakers are poised to approve a $3 billion package of tax breaks and incentives to Taiwan-based electronics manufacturer Foxconn, which is expected to have Wisconsin plants up and running in 2018.  The company will hire up to 13,000 people when all development plans are completed.

Meanwhile, candymaker HARIBO will create at least 400 jobs with a Pleasant Prairie project scheduled for completion in 2020.  Generac’s Waukesha expansion will have the company hiring 400 over the next year.  Dynamic Recycling in Onalaska will hire 150 people as it completes its $20 million expansion.  Within our own industry, Great Lakes Cheese plans to hire 125 people as it builds a new facility in Wausau, and Masters Gallery Foods expects to create 120 new jobs over the next two or three years as its Oostburg facility is built.

The list goes on.

Economic growth is always positive but, in this case, it may also create a challenge.  Statewide unemployment rates are hovering just above 3%, the second-lowest rate on historical record.  National statistics track similarly.  And, the country’s workforce is set to shrink, as Baby Boomers retire and families have fewer children.

What does this mean for cheesemakers?

More automation, probably.  But, people will always be a necessary component in the dairy manufacturing process.  A limited labor market means that our industry will have to compete like never before to recruit and retain high-quality employees.

Trade associations like Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association are focusing efforts to enhance the workforce pipeline, offering internship exchanges, direct outreach to students, networking events for young professionals, and additional training opportunities.

Ultimately, though, turning a handful of applicants into a line of workers waiting outside the door is up to the employer.  Cheesemakers intent on high-quality staff must develop a reputation as a premier employer.

The bottom line is, as always, the bottom line.  In Wisconsin, a wealth of wage analysis is available at worknet.wisconsin.gov.  A simple search reveals that a food production worker makes a median hourly wage of $15.78 in Outagamie County, $19.37 in Sheboygan County, and $20.59 in Barron County.  For companies in other parts of the country, visit the Bureau of Labor Statistics website, bls.gov, for wage data.

Online job listings can provide eye-opening information, too.  Current advertisements feature sign-on bonuses of $2,000 for housekeeping workers at a Sister Bay nursing home.  Cardinal Glass of Portage, hiring now in connection to its $10 million expansion, is advertising similar bonuses of $1,250 for entry-level production positions.  Even Sears is offering $250 up-front for new part-time employees.  Obviously, these businesses aren’t competing with cheesemakers in the supermarket aisles, but that doesn’t matter much.  They are competing – aggressively – in the labor market.

Beyond base pay and bonuses, benefits are key.  Kwik Trip, hiring another 1,000 employees over the next year as it acquires PDQ gas stations, offers profit-sharing bonuses for all employees equivalent to up to 9% of a worker’s gross annual wages.  The concept of free or low-cost, on-site medical clinics is exploding, with Kohl’s, Lands’ End, Colony Brands, MillerCoors, and several of our industry’s larger companies hopping on trend.  Employers are offering generous paid leave packages, educational reimbursements, even free food and beverages at work.

Finally, consider the workplace environment.  Millennials who grew up with social media are more likely to expect immediate feedback from supervisors.  Acknowledgements of employment anniversaries and birthdays create a sense of belonging, and community service projects or team workplace goals create a sense of pride.

Cheesemakers – like all employers – are faced with a labor shortage that is set to worsen.  Developing a strategy for recruitment and retention is vital for sustaining and growing a company, now and in the years to come.