From the workers in the fields who pick our produce to the celebrity chefs crafting the 12-course tasting menus at our favorite five-star restaurants, the universe of people who contribute to putting food on our plates is wide-ranging and diverse, with plenty of moving parts.
Whether they’re growing the food, preparing it in factories and commercial kitchens, serving it at restaurant tables or selling it at supermarkets and c-stores, the fates of employees in the food industry are often tied to some common trends, especially when it comes to the economy and the rise of technology. The recession drove consumers to tighten their belts and spend less on restaurant meals, and shoppers also grew more careful about spending at the grocery store, even as they took to preparing more meals at home.
While the recession was longer-lasting than earlier dips, the economic changes affecting the world of food industry employment are largely cyclical, as evidenced by a recent resurgence in demand for restaurant and hospitality workers. The changes wrought by new technology, however, are likely to be permanent. Everything from RFID tags and self-checkouts at the retail level, to tablets that do everything from taking your restaurant order to taking your money after the meal, to mechanical pickers and sorters that reduce the need for farm labor are transforming many aspects of food-related jobs.
An online handbook from the Bureau of Labor Statistics offers insight into the job prospects in many areas of the food business, including the place where it all begins — the fields and farms that produce the fruits, vegetables, meat, eggs and dairy products that comprise the typical American diet.
Agricultural jobs are expected to decline 3% between 2012 and 2022, as farms and livestock operations continue to consolidate and technology helps get the work done with fewer hands, according to the BLS. That said, the industry is still expected to provide job opportunities in the coming years, as the heavy physical labor involved leads to high turnover.
In contrast, jobs for butchers and bakers are on track to rise 5% and 6% respectively, while jobs at food manufacturing plants are expected to remain flat despite growing food demand, as automation takes over more of the process. There are exceptions, though — jobs for meat, poultry and fish cutters and trimmers are on track to grow 5%, as a growing number of consumers opt for prepared or partially prepared products and people are still needed to do the tasks that can’t easily be done by machines.
Restaurants and foodservice
The debate rages about whether raising the minimum wage would improve the lives of restaurant workers or result in job cuts — or some combination thereof — with economists and experts chiming in on both sides. But pay isn’t the only issue affecting the ranks of restaurant labor.
Not surprisingly, job creation at restaurants and lodging places fell during the recession, but that trend has reversed itself in recent years. At the end of January, the industry had 534,000 job openings, according to the BLS, the highest number of job openings since 2007 and more than twice as many as there were in the midst of the downturn in 2009 and 2010.
As the demand for workers rises again, restaurant operators are planning to focus more resources on recruiting and retaining qualified people this year, according to the National Restaurant Association’s Workforce Outlook and Trends report for 2014. About 40% of operators said they expect recruiting and retention to be tougher this year than it was in 2013.
Food and beverage service jobs are forecast to grow 12% from 2012 to 2022, with non-restaurant jobs at hotels, hospitals, residential care facilities and catered events leading the way. Those positions are slated to grow 20% during the decade, according to the BLS. Growth in new positions plus a high turnover rate mean foodservice employment will be readily available, with coveted posts at high-end eateries where the tips are big and going to employees with the most experience and highest skill levels.
Supermarkets and superstores
Grocery stores employed about 2.5 million people at the end of 2012, accounting for the biggest chunk of the U.S. retail workforce, according to the National Retail Federation and the BLS. During the downturn, consumers zeroed in on price, shifting more of their spending to warehouse clubs like Costco and Sam’s Club, big box discounters including Wal-Mart and Target, and deep-discount chains including Dollar General. Some 77% of adults in a recent survey from King Retail Solutions said they had purchased food from non-grocery retailers in 2013 and 96% said they would do so this year. If the trend continues, the jobs may follow in future years.
What are the biggest factors driving your plans for job creation this year? Tell us about it in the comments.