WCMA Notes: Creative HR Solutions Essential to Ending “The Great Resignation”

Posted By: Rebekah Sweeney WCMA News,

Submitted by Rebekah Sweeney, WCMA Senior Director of Programs & Policy

A record-setting number of Americans left their jobs in 2021, with over 38 million – or about five percent of the total workforce – joining in what is now called “The Great Resignation.” The trend has ramped up in recent months, and economists warn the collective chorus of “I quit” will continue, with surveys showing one in five U.S. workers planning a job change in 2022.

The dairy industry hasn’t been spared.

“Our turnover is higher than ever.  It’s unlike anything I’ve seen, working in human resources for the past 30 years,” says Tammy Flora, a vice president at Masters Gallery Foods, which employs 850 workers in Southeastern Wisconsin.  On this point, she speaks to a shared reality for the nation’s food manufacturers, a sector reporting 2021 attrition rates as high as double that experienced prior to the pandemic.

There is always a myriad of motivators for those leaving their jobs, but labor analysts point to three issues unique to this moment: a growing desire for workplace or scheduling flexibility, a perception that better compensation is available elsewhere, and a general feeling of burnout.

Through the lens of the dairy industry’s human resources leaders, these concerns are viewed as guideposts in their endeavors to retain and attract workers.

“People have had time, during this pandemic, to live their lives differently and they’re not going back to the way things were,” reports Mara Kamat, vice president of human resources for Great Lakes Cheese Company, headquartered in Hiram, Ohio and operating with more than 3,800 employees coast-to-coast.  “We can be frustrated with that, or we can adapt our systems.”

“What we did for our team members six months ago may not work for them six months from now, due to pandemic-related lifestyle changes,” says Claudia Estrella, human resources director for V&V Supremo Foods, based in Chicago, Illinois with 260 workers there and in Wisconsin.  Last summer, Estrella surveyed staff, asking them for workplace improvement ideas, a practice she plans to continue biannually.  “We have to listen and take action, to keep people engaged.”

Master Gallery Foods is responding to the call for flexibility with the launch of an innovative “Work When You Want” program, allowing part-time staff willing to log at least 16 hours each week to choose their own schedules, so long as they maintain them for 90 days.  “We’re engaging stay-at-home moms, retirees and students.  They’re reliable staff who just can’t commit to a 40-hour work week,” says Flora.

“It is a scheduling nightmare, but our doors are now wide open for part-time staff,” notes Vicki Bird, who leads human resources for Alpine Slicing & Cheese Conversion, Maple Leaf Cheese and Cheese Louise, with a combined workforce of just over 150 people in Wisconsin.  Bird says all three businesses have recently boosted part-time wages by a dollar an hour to compete for this talent.  The companies also offered a weekly cash incentive for full-timers’ perfect attendance over an eight-week period at the end of the year.

Member surveys conducted by Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association throughout 2021 revealed new signing bonus offerings and wage increases for dairy processing workers, especially in areas with a high concentration of processing plants.

“There was a wage war in Sheboygan County,” acknowledges Flora, noting that nearly every one of the major dairy processors in the region increased shift premiums. “It was a full-time struggle for talent acquisition.”

Kamat warns drastic pay inflation is dangerous for an industry that operates on tight profit margins, a reason why she’s directing Great Lake Cheese’s resources into programs for existing employees.  “The grass may not always be greener, and we’re reminding our workforce that we value them.  We’re promoting our health and wellness programs, ESOP [employee stock ownership plan] culture, engaging in charitable campaigns, and holding fun, family-oriented events.”

“We want our employees to know that they are our biggest asset,” says Estrella.  In December, V&V Supremo Foods launched a peer-to-peer recognition program, as requested by employees, and in March, will participate in National Employee Appreciation Day with gifts and a letter to each employee from the company’s owners.

In addition to appreciation, Flora is delivering the message that career advancement opportunities abound.  “Forty-six percent of our office positions are held by people who started in the plant, and we’re going to continue to focus on growing our talent internally.”

“Mindset has a lot to do with retention, and while I expect the workforce shortage to continue, we have to lead with optimism and be responsive to our constantly changing environment,” offers Kamat.

“The supply of jobs will eventually align with the available workforce,” says Flora.  “Until then, we’re going to have to be creative.”

There’s no shortage of creativity – and drive to deliver – among dairy processing’s human resources leaders.  An openness to their ideas will be essential to this industry turning the corner on turnover.