Executives at PepsiCo's Frito-Lay gathered on Zoom last April to discuss what looked to be a monumental task: Pivot a platform being built to ship snacks directly to office workers into one that would serve the home-bound consumer.
As the coronavirus outbreak erupted across the U.S., millions of people were suddenly forced to stay at home and trips to the grocery store or workplace were curtailed or put on hold indefinitely. Frito-Lay management realized they needed to rethink their strategy for the nascent platform.
Without knowing how they would do it, what type of technology they would need, the impact on the supply chain and even the tax implications of shipping snacks and drinks straight to the consumer, the team moved forward, knowing it needed to answer these questions to meet its goal of getting the platform up and running in just a month.
The experience demonstrated to Frito-Lay the power of having the right people with the right skill sets who could quickly adapt and execute. Within days, it transferred nearly 20 employees to work on the project, and just over a month later Frito-Lay unveiled Snacks.com, its first major foray into direct-to-consumer sales.
In the year since, Frito-Lay has bulked up its direct-to-consumer business even more, adding about 10 people through a mix of employees already working for the company and new hires, all with a singular goal of analyzing the reams of valuable data the snack giant harvested.
"It is an exceptionally hot market for people in data analytics, e-commerce and people who can think flexibility, think across functions," Michael Lindsey, chief growth officer with PepsiCo's Frito-Lay and Quaker Foods North America, said in an interview. "Unfortunately there is a shortage of people who have that skill set. We get more than our fair share of the best talent, but it is always a struggle."
PepsiCo Foods North America, which includes Frito-Lay and Quaker Oats, hired more than 13,500 part- and full-time workers in 2020, and now employs nearly 70,000 people in the U.S. and Canada, Lindsey said, a 9% increase from the end of 2019. With the pandemic accelerating demand for many of its products and transforming where they are purchased, the division sped up its hiring process by 10% to enable it to more quickly add workers in data analytics and e-commerce to oversee the production of Fritos, Doritos, Sun Chips and other snacks.
'We've never been this busy'
The upheaval PepsiCo and other companies in the food industry are experiencing in their employment ranks comes as more sales move online, consumer demand for healthier fare and more innovative products increases, and the growing importance of data to boost sales and minimize risk becomes more engrained in the daily operations of businesses — shifts that have been accelerated by the pandemic.
Companies that already had a presence in these areas are moving staff from other parts of the firm while looking outside the business for workers to fill gaps or bulk up their existing operations. At the same time, both large and small manufacturers across the globe who lacked a presence in spaces such as e-commerce, or made a minimal investment in the past, are left scrambling to catch up, creating a sudden rush for the same coveted pool of workers.
In statistics compiled for Food Dive by GlobalData, the research firm found nearly 60% of job postings from food companies in 2020 were in social and digital media — a reflection of their push to connect with shoppers online and build up their direct-to-consumer platforms. Another 7% of postings were in artificial intelligence and 3% in both big data and robotics.
Job postings with the keyword "innovation" increased by about 50% between the first quarter and fourth quarter in 2020, a reflection of the sense of urgency by businesses during the pandemic to create healthier offerings and the new designs and changes being made throughout their supply chain, manufacturing and packaging, according to Ajay Thalluri, a business fundamental analyst at GlobalData.
Nearly every major food company, including Mondelez International, Nestlé, Conagra Brands, Kellogg & Co. and Kraft Heinz, have job postings on their websites for insight and data analytics, marketing, and the supply chain.
This hunt for data- and tech-savvy workers is happening against the backdrop of a wider expansion in food industry jobs that started before the pandemic.
Data collected by the Labor Department's Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated food manufacturers alone employed 1.63 million people in February, having added 171,400 jobs since 2011. Employee ranks have increased in virtually every food manufacturing category calculated by the agency during the past decade, including sugar and confectionary products; frozen foods; dairy products; animal slaughter and processing; and bakeries and tortilla manufacturing. Jobs have been lost in breakfast cereal and pasta, crackers and tortillas, according to the BLS.
While thousands of jobs have been lost in recent years through automation, adoption of artificial intelligence, outsourcing and increases in efficiencies, the food industry as a whole appears to be creating more jobs than it is losing, with the growth trajectory unlikely to abate anytime soon.
"We've never been this busy in 14 years — not even close," said Josh Wand, founder and CEO of ForceBrands, a strategic recruiting firm that works with companies to grow their businesses and identify executive candidates for them to hire. "We've never seen such a high volume of job creation. There’s an incredible amount of optimism around immediate growth and sizable budgets [that] have been allocated” to hire new employees.
Wand's bullish outlook on hiring stems not only from the proliferation in data analysis, supply chain improvements, and the rapid adoption in e-commerce and other technologies but also an influx of capital from private equity groups and SPACs into emerging, mid-market brands.
The coronavirus pandemic also is changing how companies spend money and the pool of candidates available for them to hire.
"You're going to see massive job creation in the food space this year. Companies that came out of the healthy side of the pandemic that are much better off, they are spending more than ever because they realize it's a really good time to get talent now."
Founder and CEO, ForceBrands
Money that was budgeted for travel or in-office activities is being spent on initiatives to attract and retain employees, including diversity, equity and inclusion; leadership coaching; and even home exercise stipends, Wand said.
The acceptance of working remotely also means non-manufacturing employees in many cases don't have to live in the same town where a plant or corporate headquarters is located, making a bigger pool of quality job candidates suddenly available. And with unemployment higher in the struggling hospitality and restaurant industry because of the pandemic, many workers looking for a job could potentially make the transition into food, he said.
"You're going to see massive job creation in the food space this year," Wand said. "Companies that came out of the healthy side of the pandemic that are much better off, they are spending more than ever because they realize it's a really good time to get talent."
But not all analysts are as optimistic about the hiring landscape coming out of the coronavirus.
Sumit Chopra, consumer research director at GlobalData, said export regulations in some markets are stifling trade while uncertainty around the trajectory of the virus and the pace of reopenings are curtailing job growth. He said further pressure suppressing hiring is coming in the foodservice sector and markets where there is a strong reliance on travel and tourism.
"We're still in a very conservative scenario," Chopra said. "At least for now, I don't think the jobs numbers which are getting added is outpacing what was happening earlier."
Executives and analysts who follow the food space also said more clarity is needed in other areas, such as whether workers will choose or be able to work more from home instead of going back to the office. And it remains to be seen if trends like e-commerce, which saw adoption rates surge during the pandemic, will retain many of the users they gained.
"Our ability to predict the future has declined dramatically," PepsiCo's Lindsey said. "I wish I could tell you where things were headed."
Fighting for workers
The challenge for many food companies searching for talent is that not only are they competing with their peers for these candidates but also other industries that are prioritizing many of the same initiatives, whether it's building an online presence or crunching numbers.
In the United States between 2020 and 2025, the USDA forecast employment opportunities will remain robust for new college graduates with interest and expertise in food, agriculture, renewable natural resources and the environment. The government estimated nearly 60,000 jobs will be available annually in these fields, an increase of 2.6% from the previous five-year period.
As employer demand for college graduates with degrees and expertise in these fields exceeds the number available, USDA said 23,300 of the jobs, or 39%, will be filled by graduates from non-food and agricultural institutions such as biologists, mechanical engineers and accountants.
"Our food, science and technology graduates all have multiple, multiple job opportunities before they even graduate, and they tend to be paid well," said Marcos Fernandez, a professor in the college of agriculture at Purdue University.
Wand with ForceBrands said for food companies to attract top talent, they need to make prospective employees compelling offers that go beyond just the benefits. It's a big reason why employers are spending more on marketing their company as a place to not only land a job and make money but also one that offers career advancement and has a culture with clear stands on issues like diversity, the environment and sustainability.
"Employer branding has become more important than ever," said Wand. "The culture is no longer, 'Yeah, we got cold brew coffee and a ping pong table.' ...It's really about the benefits and highlighting who they are as human beings and what it's like and the opportunity to grow with the company. People have a choice now and so they want to be very thoughtful about who they spend their time with."
Mark Ramadan, CEO of Hu, a premium and chocolate snacks maker acquired by Mondelez in January, said when job applicants come in for an interview they are seeking out information on his company's mission, and whether it's worth the hassle and effort to switch jobs.
"There is a bigger focus than I've ever seen from candidates asking, 'Do you have a mission? Do you have a purpose? Do you have values? What are those values? Do those values actually translate into day-to-day work?' " he said.
Eat Just worked to address some of these issues as it prepared to ramp up production of its plant-based egg ingredient. The food manufacturer decided to purchase a 30,000-square-foot facility in Appleton, Minnesota, in 2019 to make the protein rather than use an outside manufacturer. The company said the plant, the first owned by Eat Just in its 10-year history, would give it additional control tweaking the more than 20 steps needed to make the egg substitute from mung bean.
But Appleton, a small town of 1,400 people nearly 3 hours west of Minneapolis, is "quite out there" and Eat Just was concerned that it would be a challenge to recruit workers, according to Jessica Tetrick, who leads the company's hiring.
As Eat Just began looking to increase staffing at the plant, it purchased ads on billboards in the area offering "Good benefits and wages on day one." A few months after hiring began, the onset of the pandemic forced it to change its interview process by screening all candidates virtually and provide flexibility to workers at the Minnesota plant to swap shifts if they had a medical appointment or needed to provide care for their children.
"We're seeing quite a strong candidate pool and a lot of interest from folks who are like, 'This is something different' and this is more strategy than I think a lot of people in a manufacturing line have been exposed to," Tetrick said.
Looking beyond food
As the food industry has expanded into technologies such as CRISPR or cell-based meats, the line between science, technology and food have further blurred — enabling workers to seamlessly move between the various sectors.
Eat Just, which also is developing cell-based meat, said the relative infancy of the technology has left the company with a limited group of workers in the food space with knowledge of the technology that it can choose from. To build up its team, Eat Just has looked to adjacent industries. It has hired a scientist with a background in chemical engineering, people with pharmaceutical experience and Michelin star chefs. It's gone global, too, hiring people from places like Portugal and staffing teams in China, Singapore and the U.K.
"The pool is so small in some of these specialized areas that you have to get creative from day one," Tetrick said.
With retailers now playing in multiple channels like e-commerce, brick and mortar, convenience stores and direct to consumer, having employees who can parse through data and know how to develop, sell and market products to these categories with different needs is a major reason why hiring workers outside of food is necessary, said Ramadan.
Hu's employee mix includes people from fashion and beer; industries Ramadan said understand the need to compete and be present both in store and online. It's also attracted workers from large CPGs like Mondelez, Unilever and Danone. In the past, Ramadan said smaller upstarts frowned upon poaching staff from large companies. Now, there is a growing acceptance that multinational companies excel in areas like data analysis and understanding how their retail partners are responding to the needs of their shoppers.
Becky Snow, senior vice president of people and organization at Mars Wrigley, said with job responsibilities changing and evolving "at a pace that people haven't seen before," the company has shifted more of its Mars University curriculum online for its 30,000 employees to sharpen their skills and amass knowledge relevant for their professions.
The education platform offers, for example, a course that teaches a plant operator with an iPad how to use software to diagnose a problem that before they did manually, or an employee in sales who can learn to access digital tools to monitor how products are moving through the supply chain so Mars Wrigley can communicate more effectively with a customer.
"The fundamental making and the fundamental selling [of products], those don't change, but how you do that making, how you do that selling, how you do that leadership does change and that's the piece that we are focused on," Snow said. "The bigger message is how do you help your workforce to stay current, to stay relevant, to keep up to date with skills so that they can continue to grow with us, hopefully into the future?"
Employers also are placing a bigger priority on hiring workers who are flexible and can pivot across multiple jobs rather than being experts in just one.
Hu has expanded the breadth of its interviews to ask candidates how they might respond in certain situations —for example, if there was a drop in dollar sales rankings for a brand compared to its competitors but maybe a rise in other categories like profitability or rate of growth since the last time they presented to a buyer.
PepsiCo puts a "high premium" on people who can move effortlessly across jobs, Lindsey said, and "makes sure that when we find them that we take care of them."
Few sectors demand versatility as much as collecting, analyzing and using data. Ramadan said in the past only a few people would need to be familiar with how to use data, but now nearly every employee has to be able to sift through spreadsheets, data analytics or market reports to quickly come up with a proposal or respond to a development in the market place.
Sales employees, for example, used to be armed with only product samples and basic information like how much the item would cost to pitch to a prospective customer, he said.
Retailers are now selling across multiple channels and they are inundated with countless product offerings seeking coveted shelf space. Stores also are armed with their own data and are far more knowledgeable about which products to keep on shelves or sell online and how to display them. Ramadan said Hu's sales staff now comes armed with more minute information, such as how well their items perform when a promotion is included or popularity in a particular region across the country.
"You used to have a head of analytics," Ramadan said. "Now everyone is the head of analytics for their piece of the business. Regardless of the role or seniority, people need a level of comfort with data and data analytics. It's not optional anymore."
Fernandez at Purdue University said the food sector remains primed for future job expansion, with demand for healthier foods, portable options for on-the-go shoppers and new flavors and ethnic varieties as a few areas where manufacturers will need to hire workers to develop, sell and distribute offerings.
Companies also will need to devote more resources to improving food safety, creating more environmentally friendly packaging and identifying ways to get busy consumers to purchase their products, all while facing head on changes in consumption habits that until recently hadn't meaningfully changed in decades.
“I think the opportunities — and I’m not exaggerating — would be endless" when it comes to jobs in the food sector, Fernandez said. "So much of our life revolves around food, so much of our culture revolves around food, so much of our health, our wellbeing revolves around food. It’s never going to run out of ideas. It’s never going to run out of opportunities."