Forty-eight percent of food manufacturers plan to add employees, while another 33% expect to maintain current employee levels in 2019, according to Food Processing’s 18th annual Manufacturing Survey. One of the biggest concerns is finding enough people to fill these positions.

Part of the staffing problem results from a general lack of interest among young people. “When kids think of the food industry, often they don’t even get [to food manufacturing]. They think of food service so they think flipping burgers or waiting tables,” says Nicole Gallace, founder of foodgrads.com.

The feedback Gallace has received is that unless someone had a parent who worked in the food sector or something in school inspired a young person to pursue food science, the industry isn’t on most young people’s radar. They don’t know about all the different jobs available, and neither do most career and guidance counselors.

“[Food companies] haven’t done a great job of promoting themselves as companies to work for,” says Gallace. “When you’re dealing with young people now, you are up against the Googles, the Facebooks, the big tech companies. I don’t think a lot of food companies have paid much attention to pushing themselves out as a great employer [that is] exciting and fun to work for.”

Make a plan to attract young people

Gallace suggests having a strategic plan to attract young employees. To start, companies need to know what young people care about. Here are three important considerations Gallace hears:

  1. How much does the company share on social media? Does the company have an up-to-date website with useful information? Transparency in the food industry is an ongoing trend for consumers. Transparency is also essential in attracting young employees. Companies need to give realistic glimpses into their work environment. A company without a robust online and social media presence will have more trouble appealing to a digitally connected generation that is more likely to get information online than from other sources.
  2. How much skill training and development does the company offer? Some companies are catching onto the importance of training. In the Food Processing survey, 43% of companies said they were “expanding in-house technical training.” Plus, 26% were “adding in-house engineering capabilities.”
  3. Does the company have a good work culture? Young people want to know they’re working for a good company they can be proud to tell their friends about.

Be willing to train young people

Another area Gallace believes food companies can improve is in offering internships and co-op programs for students. She cited recent research from the University of Guelph that found 74% of companies want to hire people who have hands-on experience, possibly through a co-op or an internship. “But when you flip it back to [companies] and ask [if they] have an experimental learning or a co-op or internship program, it’s crickets,” says Gallace. Another benefit is that students get a realistic view of the work and know what to expect on the job.

Although companies tend to look for hands-on experience, Gallace suggests putting more emphasis on the soft skills during the hiring process. It’s easier to teach tech skills than communication skills, conflict resolution, and other interpersonal skills needed to work successfully in a manufacturing environment.

Gallace’s bottom line for food companies who want to hire young people? “The food industry has to start to really communicate better… Transparency is everything.”