Tammi McAllister

McAllister featured in Food Engineering on labor shortages

Feb 9, 2021

Whether spurred by expanded production, new facilities or pandemic-induced work stoppages, labor shortages are not uncommon to the food and beverage industry. Food processors—and those that help them design, construct and become more efficient— are challenged to develop new solutions to cope with labor shortages. Tammi McAllister tackles this topic in Food Engineering’s “Food & beverage companies cope with labor shortages.”

Optimizing personnel and product flow

It may seem simple—just do more with less. But finding efficiencies can be a challenge for food processors that may not know where to start.

McAllister suggests manufacturers consider their flow. As your process facility ages and expands, it is important to take a holistic look at how people and product flow through it to uncover ways to make it more efficient and safe. Facility design and organization start with establishing material segregation, personnel segregation and hygienic zone definition.

“We really look at how to optimize layouts and minimize the number of people.” - McAllister

“It can become a real spaghetti mess because you keep adding products without looking at how to work more efficiently,” adds McAllister.

Improving facility and process efficiency

Streamlining work and reconfiguring workspaces can make a huge difference. Look for opportunities to optimize what you have before building new or increasing staffing. Because of ongoing labor shortage issues, McAllister says CRB works to help companies do more work without bringing on more people.

For example, CRB conducted a production and labor efficiency study for a producer of packaged nutritional products. The goal was to improve the facility and operations while reducing operating and material handling and distribution cost. With a focus on reducing headcount, CRB recommended improvement opportunities that resulted in:

  • Overall savings of more than $3.8 million annually
  • Headcount reduction for the entire site by 40%
  • Cycle time reduction in MH&D procedures by more than 50%

CRB also completed an efficiency study for a pet food company to evaluate current work practices and procedures, recommend opportunities to improve efficiency, and optimize work processes and flows. The study identified opportunities to reduce travel time by 350 labor hours annually without a significant capital investment.

Both studies identified attainable, simple solutions that resulted in big rewards.

Leveraging the right amount of automation

Faced with a labor shortage, some processors turn to automation. However, this advancement comes with its own set of challenges.

Automation affords many benefits, including the potential to increase throughput and efficiency, reduce machine footprints, flexibility to complete small runs, and track and trace. It also brings food safety benefits. While the benefits may seem appealing, processors should carefully evaluate automation projects.

“More automation equals fewer people. So, in areas where it’s hard to find labor, it’s a real option. It can be costly, though. It’s a little more of a challenge.” - McAllister

McAllister adds, “our clients evaluate automation, especially when they are at a place where they can’t add more workers due to labor shortages or capacity issues.”

With a significant upfront investment, it can be costly to implement and requires a skilled labor force to operate and maintain. Confirm you have access to a local workforce to support your automation system for the long haul.

For some processors that operate in challenging production environments, such as extreme heat or cold, automation can boost employee satisfaction.

Attracting talent with more welcoming facilities

People assume factories are loud, dirty, or dangerous, processors are looking to dispel stereotypes with new and renovated facilities that create a welcoming work environment. They’re designing environments that leverage natural light and cleaner, quieter spaces. Processers are providing access to comfortable break rooms, locker rooms, and fitness facilities. These newer or remodeled facilities can be a draw for employees.

“Some want to work at a facility that is new and not dated,” explains McAllister.

When you invest in creating a welcoming, safe environment for your employees, you are investing in them. It shows a commitment to both the employee and the community.

Safeguarding employees during the pandemic

COVID-19 will have a permanent impact on the food and beverage industry. Processors have been challenged to safeguard people and product amid the pandemic. Protecting the industry’s workforce became a primary focus.

The Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) already necessitated changes for food processors. To comply, manufacturers were required to make modifications to their facilities; ultimately, this better positioned them to protect employees and maintain operations during the pandemic. COVID-19 pushed processors to isolate and protect their workforce to avoid work stoppages due to exposures.

Protecting the supply chain is critical, and the lessons learned amid COVID-19 will carry forward.

Ultimately, it’s vital that food processors safeguard employees through proactive practices and thoughtful facility design.

Hear more from McAllister in Food Engineering‘s “Food & beverage companies cope with labor shortages.