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Labor Shortages Enhance the Need for Automation

By Greg Jones

September 21, 2021

width=201Eighteen months ago, our industry was identified as “essential,” and many suppliers and box plants are having great success as a result. However, as demand continues to rise, the labor to meet it has decreased dramatically.

This has been a movement for years now, and the complexities of acquiring and retaining talent have only compounded the need for companies to look for greater automation solutions. The shortage of available labor is something I have not previously witnessed in my 30-year career. This sentiment has been confirmed in conversations with fellow AICC members, who’ve also said there seems to be no end in sight.

In talking with those managing box plants, one organization shared that it had 300 job openings in their plants across the country. Another individual in the Pacific Northwest shared that they are experiencing an average of 26 call-outs a day at their plant. It’s already difficult to schedule production with a shortage of people; additional call-outs make it almost impossible to plan and cause greater disruption.

Most owners were already experiencing challenges pre-COVID to find individuals willing to work in the physically demanding environment of a box plant. When coupled with fears of the pandemic and additional government incentives, the difficulties have only increased. It’s no longer a matter of having an already small talent pool; it’s an industrywide shortage of interest from the available labor force. Many states have tried to incentivize workers by cutting additional federal funding, but this strategy has run into its own legal challenges.

That said, there are still many operations that maintain dedicated and skilled employees worldwide. Those willing to stay, though, have demanded greater work-life balance. In many instances, they would prefer to keep their 40 hours a week and not take on overtime work at enhanced pay. The work-life balance is much more important to them than the additional money. I am not saying they do not “have it right,” but it is something we all must manage, as we are already short staffed. Similarly, a customer visiting our operation said employees have no problem leaving if they have a personal obligation that conflicts with work, because they know they can go down the street and get a new job with a signing bonus.

This has ultimately led many in our industry to relax everything from work-from-home policies to pre-employment drug screening and modified background checks to get enough bodies in to operate equipment to meet demand. One AICC Associate member in a large metro city on the West Coast said his company had great success bringing in talent after posting their open positions in Spanish in outdoor advertising to attract skilled workers who might have otherwise not applied due to language barriers. This strategy may have worked well for them due to their geographic location, but it was also made possible because they had internal programs to support training and management tools.

However, while the human talent pool shrinks, automation has taken rise. Operating 24/7/365, automation has allowed for the industry engines to continue—exceeding the scales of human-based production. The future of our industry looks to be reliant on the few with the power of many—robots.

Greg Jones is executive vice president at SUN Automation Group and is vice Chair of AICC’s Associate board.