Alicia Shoulders

Food Industry Executive spoke with members of the Food Processing Suppliers Association’s (FPSA) Young Professionals Group about the challenges and opportunities they see in the food industry today and in the future. This interview is with Alicia Shoulders, a product specialist with Provisur Technologies, a food processing equipment company that specializes in innovative solutions for grinding, mixing, separating, forming, and slicing.

How did you get into the food industry?

I started in the food packaging industry, selling capital equipment for about six years. Then I was in valve industry for a short period. I’ve been a product specialist with Provisur Technologies for about a year. My duties include providing sales support, being a technical expert on separation equipment for the sales team, and also some marketing.

What do you like most about the food industry?

It’s very interesting to see how things are produced. The How It’s Made show is very intriguing to me, and I think it’s educational to see the process. It’s not something you think of every day — machines running at high speed, whether that’s for packaging or processing.

While I am on the separation side of the business, it’s also captivating to see burgers produced at 500 or more patties per minute with our forming lines. It’s crazy how quickly we can do things with automation and machinery.

Even in slaughterhouses, it’s fascinating to see the amount of cattle they process in a day. Some of these facilities produce 6,000 head of cattle a day. I like seeing how many people and machines it takes to get that done.

How would you like to see the food industry change?

Hunger is a big issue in the United States, and as food companies, we should be more attuned to this. There are a lot of opportunities — maybe a percentage could go toward hunger.

I know people are working on sustainability and trying to keep energy costs down. But we don’t really look at the people side of things. We look at the money side, and that’s important, but I think we could do more as an industry to help reduce hunger in America as a whole.

What are your biggest challenges as a young professional in the food industry?

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.

How can the industry reach out to younger people?

One thing we can do is reach out to the colleges, even programs like sales and engineering. People don’t think about the food industry. They think about technology firms, medical firms — companies like that. There are very good job opportunities in the food industry as a whole, whether that’s in packaging, processing, or so on.

I started out in purchasing. I’ve worked as a production coordinator. I’ve worked in inside sales. I’ve worked in many different areas of the food industry, and there are a lot of opportunities for young professionals. I think there’s a stigma that people are just running machines the whole time. No one thinks about what it takes to manufacture the equipment.

In addition to reaching out to colleges, I think we could get more businesses on board for internships. We work with some with colleges for engineering, but there’s plenty of room for improvement. If I hadn’t started the way I did, I probably wouldn’t have looked at the food industry myself.

How can the food industry cater to Millennials’ different ideas about work?

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.

Another idea is to offer the ability to work from home, if possible, or have flexible hours. We had a Millennial working for us who was in school at the same time. We worked around his schedule and were very flexible, so he worked for two of our locations depending on the day of the week.

You can also think about offering more tangible benefits, not just 401ks, etc. Young people are looking for other things, like gym access and a fun atmosphere.

What advice do you have for a young person looking to enter the food industry?

Don’t be scared of the unknown. There are a lot of opportunities, and it can be a lot of fun. It can also be challenging because it’s different.

There are also many opportunities for travel, even if you work for a U.S. company. I’ve been able to travel internationally — I spent 2 months in Barcelona. So if you want to travel, the food industry provides excellent opportunities.

Not only that, but you get to work in an international environment. Except for really small companies, most food companies on the manufacturing side are global now. You get to work with people all over the country and the world. It’s a good resume-builder, even if you decide to work in the industry for only a short period of time.

What advice do you have for companies who want to bring Millennials into the industry?

You have to set a different standard. There has to be some sort of different outlook for Millennials to keep them on board, like the career path I mentioned earlier. Millennials like to work in groups, so try to set up a structure that works for them and for the company. Also, look at your job descriptions and procedures to make sure they work for both parties.  

What broader trends do you think will affect the industry in the next 5 to 10 years?

A big challenge will be manufacturing in the United States because there’s a lack of technical resources. Machines/robots are manufacturing a lot more parts today, but I think you still need the actual labor and tribal knowledge that comes from experience when building equipment. Part of that tribal knowledge could be lost if we don’t have the right people in place. Many people I work with have 30 years of knowledge in their head, but it’s not written down anywhere. Over the next 5 years, we’ll need to focus on documentation before people start retiring so that knowledge isn’t lost.

I see machines and technology continuing to develop. As that happens, there may be a reduction in the workforce in food processing, though not necessarily in equipment manufacturing. I also think we’ll see more implementation of the Internet of Things.

Thank you, Alicia.

The FPSA Young Professionals Group is open to all FPSA members 35 years and younger. If you’d like to see what it’s all about, join the Slack channel.

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