Talent in the GreenSeam: Labor shortage hampers the agri-food supply chain

The agricultural supply chain is an impressive feat of logistics operating off a vast arsenal of talent. Constrained by perishability and the simple fact that everyone eats, food producers, processors, transporters, and their supporting services are under constant pressure to keep grocery store shelves and restaurant menus fully supplied year-round.

“Here in the GreenSeam, we continue to be the source of food, fiber and fuel for more and more people around the world,” says GreenSeam Director Sam Ziegler. “We also have the opportunity to be a global source of solutions that keep the whole system moving.”

In response to an executive order following multiple supply chain failures caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, the U.S. Department of Agriculture released the 2022 Agri-Food Supply Chain Assessment, examining vulnerabilities in the American food system. Labor was found to be the second most critical vulnerability with the concentration and consolidation of several industry segments taking priority.

The GreenSeam region is no stranger to the talent shortage.

In southern Minnesota and northern Iowa, the largest looming workforce gaps happen to be in the food supply chain. Truck driver and order fillers and stockers constitute 6,000 vacancies or 8 percent of all active job postings in this region as of August 2023. When including retail, restaurant, and repair positions, that number increases to 15,000 — or one in five job vacancies.

Steve Formaneck, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of management at Minnesota State University, Mankato’s College of Business. He has consulted on and taught supply chain management around the world. Among other factors like training, pay, and work-life balance, Dr. Formaneck attributes this worker shortage to “the lack of immigration to the U.S. that was first brought on by the pandemic and affected by changing immigration policies. Agriculture is a major employer of immigrants.”

Shoring up existing workforce gaps will be important to ensure economic resilience in the face of another pandemic; but it will take the widespread adoption of innovative supply chain management practices to ensure sustainable growth in the long-term. It starts by addressing challenges unique to the food supply chain. “Just look at a ripe banana,” says Formaneck. “It can last three days in room temperature. Even though we have many technologies that help extend the life of food that travels around the globe, it is still estimated that around one-third of that food is wasted each year.”

Managing food waste will be essential to long-term sustainability. According to the USDA, 1.3 billion people were food insecure in 2022 — a 10 percent increase from the previous year. To feed those people and the additional 2 billion who will be added to the population by 2050 will require innovative solutions that increase output and transport efficiencies while reducing waste.

Formaneck observes, “The skills that are in the shortest supply yet the highest demand are those revolving around harnessing and managing innovation and technology.” He anticipates future competitiveness in the ag supply chain will rely on “having an understanding of how automation and artificial intelligence should be implemented to enhance efficiency in operations throughout various parts of the supply chain,” allowing for meaningful data gathering which leads to better-informed decision making and risk management.

Because the American food system uniquely straddles the line between public and private sectors, the federal government also sees a need for technologies which enable data transparency. In its 2022 supply chain report, the USDA expresses a need for “an interconnected, dynamic food supply chain monitoring platform where multiple government data sets, and potentially external data sets, could be integrated, analyzed, and monitored in real time to better understand potential challenges, dependencies, and projections.” Data-oriented initiatives like this promise faster identification and mitigation of weak points in the food supply chain, underscoring the need for technical skillsets in STEM and management disciplines with an emphasis on agribusiness.

Minnesota State Mankato’s College of Business is preparing its students to respond to these national and global challenges with a Bachelor of Science in Agribusiness and Food Innovation program. Formaneck says, “we provide students with hands-on industry experiences throughout our courses where they connect with various players connected to the food and ag industry to learn about the challenges they face and to develop analytical and problem-solving skills that are required to overcome them.”

The GreenSeam region’s influence in the global food supply chain is only growing as foreign conflicts and climate change highlight our hub’s history of reliable growth. It is fitting for local industry stakeholders to prepare their future leaders to address these long-term and widespread challenges. “We are grateful that MNSUM has stepped up and built this program for our industry,” says GreenSeam’s Sam Ziegler. “Our entire region will benefit as this program develops the future leaders of the food supply chain.”

GreenSeam believes that working together as an agricultural community will help us better navigate the workforce related challenges experienced today and attract more people to consider careers in agriculture, food, and natural resources. Holly Callaghan, Economic Development Coordinator, can be reached via email at hcallaghan@greenseam.org

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