Labor has been an issue in the meat industry for a long time. Well before everyone knew what a Coronavirus was, large and small processors alike were struggling with how to find and retain good workers. The labor shortage has become even more critical now, and it’s disrupted the entire meat supply chain. If the big packing plants can’t fill shifts, the result is a raw materials shortage and higher meat prices for everyone.

Of course, the larger effects of the labor shortage are out of your control. As a small processor, your main concern is the employment situation in your own facility. To that end, there are a couple of things that you should be doing.

One possibility is to re-examine the automation situation. Technology is continually changing, and high-tech equipment that used to be out of reach to the smaller meat and poultry processors is more accessible now. Processors don’t have to automate their entire operation, either. A single piece of equipment that does what one or two employees used to do by hand provides an immediate return on investment. Plus, there are multiple state and federal grants out there now that are designed to help small processors with capital expenditures. With the right grant, that piece of machinery that was out of your price range may suddenly become available.

If that help wanted sign in your window or that social media post looking for workers isn’t getting the job done, then you should try using a different recruiting tool: your existing workforce. Your employees may know somebody who knows somebody who just got laid off of their job. Offer a bonus to any employee who can bring in a new hire. If that new person is still employed after 90 days, then they get a bonus, and so does the worker who made the referral.

Of course, in order for an employee to make a referral, they have to be satisfied at the job. Look over your benefits package and see how it compares to other companies in your region. Make sure your starting salary is a living wage for your area. A meat plant in rural Nebraska won’t pay the same wages as a butcher shop in Manhattan. Check with your workforce and see what benefits they might want. Something small like a well-stocked vending machine, employee discounts or comfortable chairs in the breakroom can make the workday a little happier.

Most importantly, don’t underestimate the value of praise. That doesn’t cost you a thing. A staff meeting where you call out specific team members who went above and beyond the call or say that you’re grateful to everyone for their work goes a long way toward creating a happy workforce. And a happy workforce is one of the best recruitment tools you’ll ever find.

Sam Gazdziak