Over the course of the past nine years, KK&P has worked extensively in the state of Rhode Island, a little state that is investing big in the food system.
The state has identified food industries and the food system as growth sectors and focal points of statewide economic development. To that end, for example, the state’s land grant institution developed undergraduate and graduate programming focused on sustainable agriculture and food systems. And notably, in 2017, Rhode Island released its state food strategy, which focuses on increasing and preserving agricultural production, creating new market opportunities, improving the business climate for farm and food ventures and addressing food security (including both improving access to healthy food and mitigating poverty that limits access).
Workforce opportunities are embedded in all of these investments, and for these investments to bear fruit, workforce challenges must be understood and addressed.
Over the course of 2019, KK&P has worked to identify key workforce needs and opportunities across the state’s food industry.
We started with the data. Rhode Island’s food cluster accounts for more than 69,000 jobs, or 17 percent of the state’s total private employment. And food industry cluster jobs have grown by 22 percent from 2002 to 2017, a period during which total employment in Rhode Island grew by just 3 percent.
To understand how those numbers played out on the ground, we interviewed leaders and decision-makers from 25 food businesses, including distributors, food service management companies, restaurant groups, processors, farmers (on land and in the sea) and multi-unit grocery chains. We spoke with people at companies that are just a few years old with a few employees to folks at multi-generational businesses with more than 1,000 employees and still others at some of the largest multinational businesses.
Our research found that when it comes to workforce challenges, these diverse businesses have much in common. For many, word of mouth has been the most successful way to recruit new employees. Almost all said that employee retention is a significant challenge, with several recalling situations in which people walked off the job mid-shift or quit after just a day. One food processor said that he employs a 25 percent bigger workforce than he actually needs because no-shows are so frequent.
But we also heard loud and clear that some businesses are working creatively and effectively to improve retention, knowing that higher wages alone won’t do the trick. In a few cases, business owners are customizing benefits packages to nurture their workers’ individual motivators, goals and hopes. They’re adding products and services to minimize layoffs in the “off-season” or “slow season.” They’re leveraging training as an employee engagement and retention strategy, ensuring that workers feel the business is investing in them and that they are “part of something.” And they’re trying to provide transparent pathways to next level jobs and careers.
In response to these findings, with a multi-year commitment of funding from the Rhode Island Department of Labor and Training, the RI Food Policy Council has launched Real Food Jobs RI, an employer-driven strategy to ensure that Rhode Island food businesses have the talent they need to compete and grow while providing targeted education, skills training and pathways into food industry careers for Rhode Island workers. With a mission to promote a more equitable, accessible and sustainable food system and with strong ties to businesses across the food system, state and local agencies, food and workforce nonprofits, institutions of higher education, the RI Food Policy Council is an optimal convener of this work.
Implementation has just begun, with the first set of trainings offered in early December, in partnership with another of KK&P’s clients, the RI Nursery and Landscape Association, who we’ve supported in developing Registered Apprenticeship programs for agriculture, horticulture and landscape industries.
Currently, KK&P is heading up the search for a Director of Workforce Initiatives to co-design and lead Real Food Jobs. We look forward to working alongside the new hire and the RI Food Policy Council for much of 2020, designing, growing and building momentum for the program, facilitating pre-competitive peer-to-peer learning networks among business owners, strengthening workforce pipelines into food industries and better articulating of pathways into careers in the state’s food industries.