The U.S. food industry is tapping a new pool of workers to staff plants and grocery warehouses: their former employees.
, the biggest U.S. supermarket operator by sales, is staying in touch with ex-employees and bringing some back. Cereal maker
General Mills Inc.
has persuaded some retirees to return to plant jobs, and other food-company recruiters have combed social media for former workers who might be open to coming back.
Companies across the U.S. economy have faced a severe shortage of workers since the onset of the pandemic as people left the workforce in record numbers. Employees quit because they were worried about contracting Covid-19 or received government incentives, or they switched industries seeking better working conditions or pay.
Cincinnati-based Kroger has been working harder since the pandemic to follow up with employees who leave, and maintaining contact with them, said
chief people officer at the grocer. Kroger is reaching out to some former employees via text and email, he said, helping return the company’s staffing to near its prepandemic level.
“Alumni are also a talent source,” Mr. Massa said.
Kroger has seen a significant increase in the number of former employees of various demographics returning to the company——so-called boomerangs——and people are typically coming back within six months of leaving, Mr. Massa said.
Staffing struggles hit food companies early in the pandemic period as they worked to meet strong demand from consumers and maintain the country’s food supply chain without disruption. Workers’ frustration over pay, benefits or safety in front-line jobs contributed to strikes at snack producer Mondelez International Inc., breakfast cereal maker Kellogg Co. and Kroger.
Recently, companies in some sectors have gone on a hiring spree, helping push the U.S. unemployment rate to a 53-year low in January, according to the Labor Department. At the same time, corporate layoffs have spread from the tech sector to media, finance and some manufacturing companies.
To boost employment, some food companies have raised hourly wages, offered bonuses, hired temporary workers and introduced flexible shifts.
Food companies, like others, lost senior employees during the pandemic as some opted to retire early, according to company executives and labor unions. Many companies focused on filling job vacancies last year, but newer employees have in some cases led to a less efficient workforce.
Minneapolis-based General Mills launched a pilot program late last summer that brings retirees back to work at two plants in Missouri and Illinois, said
General Mills’ chief human resources officer. The program, designed to help the company fill staffing gaps created when current employees take vacation or parental leave, is expanding to a third plant soon, she said.
“When [retirees] slide right into a job they have done before, it helps cut back on training time,” Ms. Williams-Roll said. They can also act as mentors to less-experienced workers, she said.
Stacy Giltner, a human resources manager at General Mills’ plant in Hannibal, Mo., said the facility has recently been shorter-staffed than at any other time in the past 10 years. Ms. Giltner recently sent letters to 45 retirees, inviting them to return, and nearly a quarter did. Retirees are also working unfilled overtime shifts and filling in on production lines while new employees complete training.
Maintenance planner Kenny Miller was an early recruit in Hannibal, invited to return to the plant in 2021 at a time when many current employees were working long hours of overtime. Mr. Miller, who retired in 2018 after nearly 30 years, said he jumped at the chance to return while still drawing a pension.
“I loved that job,” said Mr. Miller, 72 years old. “I get to see some fellow workers I haven’t seen for a while.”
General Mills’ rehire rate increased by roughly 50% to about 100 employees across U.S. manufacturing plants in 2022 compared with 2021 as the company also doubled the number of new employees it hired, Ms. Williams-Roll said.
At Associated Wholesale Grocers Inc., one of the biggest U.S. grocery wholesalers, recruiters are having luck contacting former employees via LinkedIn and Meta Platforms Inc.’s Facebook.
David Smith, Associated Wholesale’s chief executive, said the company’s average rehire rate has increased by four times and it has been more aggressive with rehiring after seeing the success. Rehiring has helped Associated Wholesale’s productivity levels as former employees meet goals about three months before new hires, Mr. Smith said.
“It was like a little lightbulb came on,” Mr. Smith said. “They were good workers that left our workforce and were coming back.”
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Some food executives said their rehire rates are consistent with past years and that the labor market remains tight, with positions for mechanics and engineers difficult to fill.
Not all companies are welcoming back former employees. Roger O’Brien, CEO of California-based Santa Monica Seafood, said he generally doesn’t rehire employees who leave the seafood processor of their own accord because he doesn’t want to give his workers the idea they can always return if things don’t work out.
“If you left, you probably left us in a lurch, and with problems we had to deal with, like filling that slot in a time when the market was tough,” Mr. O’Brien said.
Kroger’s Mr. Massa said that returning employees are drawn back by job stability, company culture or because new roles didn’t pan out.
Tish Spurlock, who had been a recruiter at Kroger, left last year for a big technology company, seeking a new experience. A few months into the new gig, her former boss at Kroger called to check in. The two spoke at length about Ms. Spurlock’s experience as a recent mother, and her manager mentioned an opening on her old team.
“It made me think, ‘I wouldn’t mind going back,’” Ms. Spurlock said. She returned to Kroger four months later as a director of recruiting for Kroger’s data analytics business, with a higher salary.
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