But the industry’s continued growth is up against major economic and consumer- driven headwinds. Consumption of red meat in the US is slowing, while pork consumption is growing domestically and in places like Asia and Africa. What’s more, stricter food safety and environmental regulations are impacting plant operations, as are major dietary changes including the development of protein-based meat substitutes. Then there is the current trade uncertainty between the US and China.
But the biggest challenge the meat industry faces is in its labor force. Meat producers are simultaneously losing the baby boomer generation of workers to retirement and the next generation of workers to a confluence of factors—among them the industry’s poor and outdated reputation, lack of diversity, rural locales, and unclear career paths. All this is happening against a backdrop of digital transformation and consolidation that is pitting the industry against an entirely new set of competitors to attract the right talent to take it into the future.
“Talent availability has changed drastically. Meat plants of the past were thought of as well-paying and were small enough to be able to source their labor pool from the community,” says Nicole Johnson-Hoffman, senior vice president and chief sustainability officer for the meat processing company OSI Group. OSI’s hot dogs, hamburgers, and other products generate $6 billion in annual revenue; the Aurora, Illinois-based company ranks 63rd on the Forbes list of America’s largest privately held companies.
“Now, fewer people are looking to spend time in factories, and bigger plants and new tech skills mean organizations have to hire from outside the community,” says Johnson- Hoffman, who also serves as president of the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef, a trade organization that represents members across the meat processing value chain.
Indeed, Sean McBurney, senior partner and sector leader for Korn Ferry’s North American Agriculture practice calls talent the “number-one issue.” “There is a need to ramp up the attraction of talent back to the protein sector and to access new kinds of talent with new skill sets to support major changes in the industry in areas such as technology and automation.”
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Last fall, six pork producers and four state associations convened by the National Pork Board held the inaugural meeting of the Labor Task Force, an official committee within the organization. The aptly named group’s aim, according to National Pork Board CEO Bill Even, is to examine ways to reduce turnover and maximize workforce opportunities, and to share best practices. The meat industry has one of the highest turnover rates of any sector, estimated in excess of 30% annually. It is also one of the biggest employers domestically and worldwide.
“Our goal is to better retain and develop talent, so we don’t lose emerging leaders to other industries,” says Even, who grew up on a family farm in South Dakota that he still runs. Even was named CEO of the National Pork Board, which represents 60,000 US pork producers and has an annual budget of around $70 million, in 2016.