Food and beverage firms develop own talent pipelines

Finding good talent is an issue that’s top of mind for many of the Milwaukee area’s food and beverage manufacturers.

The food and beverage segment of the local manufacturing industry tends to have more mass appeal — brewery tours are perpetually popular — but it still suffers from some of the same challenges. Its workforce is aging and the pipeline of qualified workers isn’t big enough to replace the huge portion of workers set to retire soon.

Jim McCabe – “Food and beverage is the fun version of manufacturing, but it’s still manufacturing.”  Photo by Scott Paulus

CEOs from several of the area’s breweries and specialty food makers recently participated in a Milwaukee Business Journal roundtable to discuss their biggest challenges. The consensus was that finding talent at any level, despite efforts from FaB Wisconsin to intervene, remains difficult.

“Food and beverage is the fun version of manufacturing, but it’s still manufacturing,” said Jim McCabe, co-owner and founder of Milwaukee Brewing Co., Milwaukee.

Peter Gottsacker, president of St. Francis-based seasonings and flavor systems company Wixon Inc., said finding skilled workers who can handle the rigorous food safety requirements of food manufacturing is tough. And on the other end of the spectrum, Kurt Penn, founder and CEO of Good Foods Group LLC, Pleasant Prairie, said he struggles to find executives to work in his clean-label packaged foods company.

“Not just hourly line workers, but also in the executive suite, whether sales or marketing, it has been a challenge, to find the right people who understand our products and live in the area,” Penn said.

Shelley Jurewicz, executive director for FaB Wisconsin, said the organization worked with Milwaukee Area Technical College to build a training program to address the talent pipeline for food and beverage companies, but so far the response has been lackluster.

“If these careers aren’t on the radar of high schoolers and middle schoolers, we won’t have a talent pipeline,” Jurewicz said.

Food and beverage products typically get more public attention than many products Wisconsin manufacturers make, since many of those companies create parts that feed into other manufacturer’s products or processes.

But food and beverage gets plenty of advertising. Jurewicz said that’s a missed opportunity for the industry.

“When you look at billboards, it’s all about the products,” she said. “It’s not about the labor behind those products. We need the industry to put a keen eye toward marketing toward talent.”

Gottsacker said his company has taken to social media to try to find talent. Penn has taken it a step further, hiring external marketers to find talent and developing an internal recruiting program.

Jeff Hamilton, president of Sprecher Brewing Co., Glendale, said his company has benefited from its proximity to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and has converted many student tour guides into full-time employees.

Stone Creek Coffee, Milwaukee, has developed a set career path that outlines advancement opportunities for employees, said Phil Lenaghan, wholesale developer. That has helped retain employees from entry-level high school students on through upper management.

“A lot of young people coming out of high school or college, their first thought is ‘I’ll work in coffee,’” Lenaghan said.

With that plan in place, Stone Creek has recently shifted its focus to hiring employees who fit the culture, rather than employees with lots of coffee experience.

“We give them an opportunity to grow with us for 10 years,” he said. “You can dive deeper into the coffee, or you can get more into the business side.”

Similarly, Jim Wright, general manager of MillerCoors Wisconsin, Milwaukee, said his company sees its future resting on the entry-level positions it is currently recruiting for directly from schools.

“Our plant managers are working on training people from the older workers,” Wright said. “That’s a big focus for our company to replace that working knowledge.”

Olivia Barrow, Milwaukee Business Journal

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