Looking back on 2020, the word that comes to mind is disruption. Indeed, the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic disrupted lives on an individual basis due to necessary stay-at-home orders and high unemployment rates. It also had a significant impact on the food system—from supply chain management to increased reliance on automation to changes in consumer needs.
The events of the year have left many questioning what the future holds, so in October experts from a variety of disciplines gathered for IFT’s Careers InFocus virtual event to reflect on current realities and to take a look at what’s ahead. What follows are three key takeaways from that event.
“This is an incredible period of innovation in the food industry,” observed Andrew Yang, founder of Venture for America and former U.S. presidential candidate, in his keynote address. He went on to add that the fast-food sector, in particular, is undergoing a new wave of automation, affecting everything from food preparation to drive-thru options.
“It used to be that there was high-tech and there was food,” said TC Chatterjee, CEO of Griffith Foods, during a panel discussion on the future of work. “That’s not true anymore. The two worlds are colliding and have been colliding at a very rapid pace. That’s impacting the value chain significantly … and therefore will impact the way we work today and the way we will continue to be working moving forward.”
This rapid advancement in innovation is thanks in part to a surge in startups and entrepreneurs bringing ideas from other industries—robotics, artificial intelligence, etc.—and applying them to the food industry. This shift influences how large food companies approach innovation and has given employees more choices when it comes to their career paths. Decades ago, “it was always kind of the holy grail to get a position with one of the global, multi-billion-dollar consumer food companies,” said Lowell Isom, managing partner for HHI Search, an executive recruiting firm for scientists and engineers. “The excitement now is around these smaller, more entrepreneurial-type companies.
“People don’t want to see work as a job,” continued Isom. “They want to see it as a way to impact their community.”
With technology driving rapid innovation, food industry employers are seeking different skill sets than they were a decade or two ago. “In the past, there was a pretty clear delineation between the technical talent and those that had the strategic leadership skills, explained Isom. “Now, somebody that’s coming in that’s running an organization from a leadership standpoint also needs to bring a very specific technical skill set along with them that is still leveraged.”
Chatterjee agrees that job seekers need to bring more than just a specific set of technical skills. “It is more than just technical skills; it is those skills in application,” said Chatterjee. Attitude is equally important.
“Increasingly, what I think food companies are looking for is the ability of individuals to come in and be additive and accretive in what we are looking to do,” continued Chatterjee. “Specifically, meeting consumers’ needs that are changing dramatically and at a much more rapid pace means that we, as food companies, have to be equipped to meet those needs of our customers—in our case, food manufacturers—and then their customers—the ultimate consumers. That requires an additional level of speed. If that’s the ask, then we are looking for people who enable us to be that much faster without compromising on the quality of what it is we are putting together.”
At the same time, specialized skills remain invaluable in a highly technical industry. “Economy-wide, skills are getting rewarded based on specialization more and more, said Yang. “Identify what you already are good at … and keep on staying current in those skills and those fields.”
In a session on pay inequity, panelists agreed that employment inequities related to gender and race are real, and correcting them must be prioritized. Still, it is essential to recognize that change won’t happen overnight. Spurred by the nationwide civil unrest this spring, many employers are examining their organizations’ diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) initiatives.
“This circumstance of inequity is not something that occurred in the last three to six months,” said panelist Toni Cornelius, founder and president of TamarindTree Consulting, a consultancy that focuses on leadership development and organizational strategies to promote DE&I. “Some of these practices are deeply embedded, and they’re things that we pass by every day and don’t even think about.”
Cornelius advised companies to define what they mean when they say diversity, equity, and inclusion. “Think about your appetite for change, but absolutely be firm on what outcome you’re looking to achieve because that’s what’s going to help you guide the path.”
IFT salary survey data, last collected in 2019, underscores the problem of pay disparities in the science of food profession. A 2019 survey of U.S.-based members found that the median salary for female science of food professionals was 73.5% of the men’s median, and the median salary for Black science of food professionals was 82% of the median for white professionals. (Note: The latter figure is not statistically significant because Blacks represented just 3% of survey respondents.)
Taking a big-picture approach is essential when it comes to ensuring that salary decisions are made equitably, said Kathryn O’Connor, a compensation expert with HR Source. “Make sure you have a compensation plan, a compensation program,” she said, noting that the plan should ensure that salary ranges reflect market-based analyses. “Because,” O’Connor continued, “that is going to be necessary to allow managers and supervisors to make unbiased pay decisions going forward.”
As for employees, Ruth MacDonald, professor and chair of the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition at Iowa State University, advises that they take a proactive approach to salary negotiation. “Do your homework,” she said. “Find out what is the pay range, what is the benefits package that the company or academic institution that you’re looking at pays on average for that job. And be ready to negotiate.”