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 Jose Ibanez, a regional sales manager at STOBER Drives, a company that makes gearboxes specifically designed for food processing equipment.
How did you get into the food industry?
JI: Once I finished college. I was recruited by a bearing manufacturer, and I got into the power transmission world. I graduated with a mechanical engineering degree, so my original thought was to go into a typical design mechanical engineer role, but then I discovered the commercial aspect. I very quickly switched into technical sales within the bearing world, and after about six years of working with advanced manufacturing, I learned about the opportunity to manage a region at STOBER Drives, where I’ve been for almost nine years.
What do you like most about working in the food industry?
The variety. It’s fun — in any given week, or any given day really, you could be talking to a maintenance mechanic changing the gearbox on a kettle mixer drive at a prepared foods facility, and then meet with a plant reliability manager at a beer bottling facility to discuss improving overall equipment effectiveness. You get to see a lot of different applications and interact with a lot of different people. The variety keeps you engaged.
How would you like to see the food industry change?
I would like to see our industry become more diverse; whether it be gender diversity, racial diversity, international diversity, etc. It’s a challenge for our industry to recruit, train, and retain people with different backgrounds. Certainly the young professionals coming up in the industry are more diverse, but I think we still have a lot of room for improvement.
Do you have any suggestions for how the industry can reach a more diverse audience?
It’s all about outreach. I think it’s about laying out a plan, whether it be by companies or by an organization like FPSA, to identify those communities and reach out to them. Say you’re talking about racial diversity — there are several schools that focus on serving diverse communities. You can educate them about the food industry, the opportunities available, what a career path looks like, and the training and education you need to get there.
What has been your biggest challenge as a young professional in the industry?
I think for any young professional, it’s credibility. It’s having your peers, your coworkers, and your customers be able to trust you. We’re working in an industry where a lot of people have been involved for 30, 40, 50-plus years. As a newcomer, it takes a few years to build your credibility and have people rely on what you’re saying and your opinion.
How can people just entering the industry gain that credibility?
It’s all about education. Companies need to provide opportunities for their young professionals to become better at what they do. Give them the opportunity to develop themselves and become more versed in their field.
Conversely, young people need to take those opportunities. At the same time it’s incumbent on you to look for more opportunities beyond what’s directly in front of you to educate yourself and become better at your job. People will be more confident in what you’re saying because you have the background and the skill behind it.
How have you seen the industry evolve in the nine years you’ve been in it?
A lot of smaller players are getting market share. So, for example, if you look at breweries, you still have the largest, AB InBev and the like. But now you have so many different microbrews that are gaining market share. This is forcing the larger players to become more innovative.
At the same time, you see a lot of changes in consumer demands because of health. People are a lot more conscious about what they’re ingesting and they’re not just buying whatever’s on the shelves. That’s why we’re seeing innovative companies like Beyond Meat.
How can the food industry be more attractive to young people entering the workforce?
That’s a big challenge. The first thing is creating a sustainable outreach program that can be repeated all across the country. We need to educate schools about the opportunities and the skills students need.
The younger generations entering the workforce are very different from the people who’ve been in the industry for 30, 40, 50 years. They’re looking for something more than just money, I believe. They look for a company that has a good culture, where they can see a reflection of themselves. The company needs to have a mission that they can believe in and feel like they’re participating in.
Individual companies need to be very cognizant and very specific about communicating their mission. That drives the company culture. When you walk into different companies, you can very quickly tell who has a good culture and who has a bad culture. The ones that have a good culture are better at retaining their talent.
What advice do you have for young people considering entering the food industry?
Be open to new opportunities.
One good thing about the food industry is that it’s pretty stable. We’ve had a lot of ups and downs in the economy over the past few years, and economists predict that trend will continue for the next 10 to 15 years. The food industry is almost recession-proof — people always have to eat. It’s a good industry to be involved in.
What value do you find in networks like the FPSA Young Professionals Group?
For a young professional, the FPSA YPG is phenomenal. It’s very valuable to interact with your peers and learn from one another, as well as to interact with seasoned professionals and learn from the people who have been doing your job for a long time.
How do you think the food industry will change in the next 10 years?
Automation. I think factory automation is inevitable. When we talk to customers, the biggest thing that the vast majority struggle with is the labor force. There’s a lot of turnover, and because of that a skilled labor force is hard to come across. We’ve started to see a trend of companies being forced into putting in machines that can improve plant productivity. Automation is already happening, but we’re going to see a lot more of it in the next 10 or 15 years.