This story has been updated to include comments from the Consumer Brands Association.
- Employment at food manufacturing facilities increased by 7,200 to 1.671 million workers in February, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics preliminary data released Friday. This marks an increase of about 1,400 in the pace of growth from January, and the third straight month of employment gains for the sector.
- Food manufacturing has continued to slowly recover from the headwinds caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and labor shortage. There were 40,700 more factory workers this February than this same period in 2021, according to BLS figures.
- As the labor market continues to rebound from pandemic-influenced shortages, CPGs are focusing their workforce on key growth areas as they try to meet continued high consumer demand for food and beverage products.
Over the past two years, food manufacturers across the country have faced labor shortages because of COVID-19's impact and as many workers have reassessed their livelihoods and demanded better working conditions. The industry has responded by trying to attract more workers with benefits including bonuses, training, higher pay, more flexible hours, better health insurance and educational opportunities.
The latest figures from BLS indicate that these efforts appear to be gaining traction and the impacts of labor shortages at food factories may soon be easing up. The increase in food manufacturing jobs coincides with the job market as a whole improving, with the unemployment rate decreasing slightly to 3.8% in February. This is a pandemic-era low for unemployment, and it was the biggest month for job growth since July, shattering expectations of some economic analysts who predicted a slower recovery. Nondurable goods manufacturing, which food manufacturing is a part of, added 16,000 new workers across the month.
In a statement, the Consumer Brands Association highlighted the second straight month of strong job gains in the CPG industry. But it noted that although nearly 8,000 CPG jobs were added in February, the industry still has 132,000 job openings, according to its analysis of BLS data.
President and CEO Geoff Freeman said the workforce must continue to grow throughout the CPG supply chain, especially in trucking.
"If we want continued job gains, there must be a strategy to get more Americans into the labor pool," Freeman said. "The unemployment rate obscures the millions of Americans sitting on the sidelines of the workforce — many of whom CPG companies would like to see join their ranks."
Even as food companies ramp up their hiring, they are also being strategic about where they are dedicating labor. In some cases, this has included laying off workers in areas where the company is not performing as well and choosing to hone in on key growth areas. In January, meat giant Tyson announced that it was laying off 200 workers at a poultry plant in Kentucky, telling Food Dive that growing demand for its fully cooked, “value added” chicken has led to a refocusing of labor toward that segment.
Recent job shifts have also not been limited to manufacturing jobs. Unilever announced in January that it would lay off about 1,500 managers worldwide as it restructures its company to be more responsive to consumer trends.
A pick-up in factory hiring also does not mean that the labor unrest from 2021, which included nationwide strikes last year at Mondelēz and Kellogg plants, has subsided. This month, about 1,300 workers at a Hershey factory in Stuarts Draft, Virginia, are voting on whether to join the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers’ International Union, according to local NPR affiliate news reports. Some employees at the factory have complained about long hours with few days off and unfair management, in a video uploaded by labor nonprofit More Perfect Union. Hershey's director of corporate communications Jeff Beckman told Newsweek last month that the company believes a workers union would be "counter-productive and undermine the open and collaborative environment that has allowed the Stuarts Draft plant to thrive for nearly 40 years." Votes are set to be tallied on March 24.
Correction: A previous version of this story misrepresented the increase in food manufacturing employment. The sector saw 7,200 more jobs in February, up by 1,400 from the increase in January.