Originally printed in the October 2021 issue of Produce Business.
All over the country, businesses are experiencing difficulty getting fully staffed. This is especially a problem in restaurants and hospitality establishments that downsized a great deal or even closed during the pandemic. In August one in 14 workers in these industries quit. Partly this is because it is easy to quit as comparable jobs are easy to get, and the employees often can get a better or higher paying job elsewhere.
In theory, this can also be good for America. More upward mobility by employees, more willingness to move and take risks… it is a kind entrepreneurial boost that many thought was starting to be lacking in America.
The problem is that the demand for employees is so robust in large part because the percentage of people in the work force has fallen dramatically. In April of 2000, 64.7% of Americans of working age were working. In the midst of the pandemic, in April of 2021 only 51.3% of Americans of working age were working. The number has rebounded but only to 58.7% in September of 2021.
Why the total employment number is so low is not 100% clear. To some extent, it is a function of higher unemployment and other benefits facilitating people not working. The lingering effects of COVID-19 are unclear, but there probably are people still hesitant to work and families more tolerant of their adult children living at home unemployed.
There may be some hopelessness involved too. Since January, the national median rent has increased by 16.4%, and in areas that are in high demand, much more. In addition to higher rents, many landlords are demanding that tenants have higher credit ratings, put down more as a deposit, etc.
All this puts produce in an interesting position. Farmers report enormous difficulty in getting workers to harvest, in part because the foodservice industry is so desperate and thus willing to pay premium wages. One approach is to get approval of more programs to allow immigrants in to harvest. In the UK, there is a program to encourage British citizens to harvest and, of course, there are many efforts to automate picking and packing.
It is not just a growing and harvesting issue. Bruce Taylor was quoted in The Wall Street Journal explaining that the difficulty in getting staff was what made him hesitant to require a vaccine mandate at Taylor Farms. We hear all the time that many companies are counting on the government being unable to enforce President Biden’s OSHA Mandate that companies with over 100 employees must be vaccinated.
The secret weapon in produce is that most people have stayed in the field because they love it…
Produce is a specialized area, and people, even if available, are not interchangeable. It can take years, decades even, for new hires to gain the knowledge, contacts, etc., of people they are replacing.
The industry has struggled with similar issues. There was a moment in time when many terminal markets were trying to change their hours of operation, primarily because it was hard to staff nighttime operations. But, facts are facts… stores need produce to arrive early in the day, the night coolness is better for the product than the heat of the day, and transport takes time, which means items have to be purchased so they can get on the road.
I remember my father being awoken many times during the night as truckers reported breakdowns and delays and his team reported missing trucks.
Inherently, dealing with perishable items means you can’t run on banker’s hours. Of course, with ATMs and internet banking, banks can’t run on banker’s hours either.
There is no question that in growing, harvesting, packing and processing, the rise of automation is essential. What will happen to the sales and executive ranks is just less clear.
Word recently broke that U.S. Secretary of Transportation, Pete Buttigieg “has been on paid leave since mid-August to spend time with his husband, Chasten, and their two newborn babies,” as Politico reported on October 14th.
There was a bit of humor here because virtually nobody even realized he was missing from the job. Yet most produce executives, male or female, can’t do that. I remember my father being horrified at being called to jury duty as it made him work all day on the jury and then all night in his produce business.
Back in those pre-cell phone days, he strictly limited vacation to one week and two weekends, and we usually vacationed in places where he could visit customers or had an office he could work in. My mother and my siblings got to stay at the beach but he mostly was working.
Technology has made things more flexible. Today people can travel more and be away from offices more because they carry their offices with them. I remember sitting next to an Israeli grape grower at an industry event, and we were on a bus visiting some California fields. He was busy on his phone, and when I asked he explained that he was adjusting irrigation flows in various places in his growing operation back in Israel.
I think the secret weapon in produce is that most people have stayed in the field because they love it, so the endless hours on call are not so much a burden as part of the excitement. With the labor situation as it is, we better hope that the joy people find in produce is sufficient to keep them engaged.