Labor shortages remain a huge challenge for meat, poultry, and seafood processors. In fact, nearly two-thirds (62%) classify labor as their biggest operational challenge this year, according to Meat, Poultry, Seafood & Alternative Proteins, a study published in September 2022 by PMMI, The Association for Packaging and Processing Technologies. Nearly half (47%) of the respondents would consider automating any task that could replace reliance on human labor.  

Unfortunately, for most processors, less than 50% of their plant floor is automated. The PMMI report explains that this relatively low penetration of automation is because processors find it difficult to identify systems that suit their operation. It’s also challenging to provide the capital, time, and expertise needed to execute automation projects. As a result, there is a balancing act between future goals and immediate needs. What automation processors have adopted tends to be associated with secondary packaging. On the processing side, automation can’t always accommodate the variability and often delicate nature of the product. Nevertheless, processors are slowly expanding the use of automated systems in processing, often via incremental improvements like automated feeding or automated inspection. 

Technology such as automation — easy-to-use, intuitive controls — and remote diagnostics can help operators be more self-sufficient and broaden the work area each operator oversees, thereby reducing the number of team members needed. This cuts costs, lowers recruitment needs and accommodates lower-skilled workers. Automating manual tasks can improve retention by minimizing repetitive, physically-demanding tasks, improving safety, and making the workday more fulfilling. Automation makes actionable information more accessible to operators and mechanics and boosts accuracy and line speed. It also can improve the training experience via newer procedures and guidance tools, such as augmented reality, which offer the potential for a higher level of engagement and a shorter learning curve for new hires or personnel accepting new responsibilities.  

To retain personnel, it is necessary to identify skills gaps, continually invest in employees, and clearly communicate the opportunities available to gain skills, change roles, and advance. In fact, according to the PMMI report, 12% of processors cite the employee skills gap as their top operational concern. So, processors are placing increased emphasis on upskilling and equipping employees with the knowledge needed to efficiently operate the newest generation of equipment. This need to upskill the workforce is encouraging closer ties with suppliers to provide training on new equipment as well as refresher sessions. 

Workforce development is an integral part of the services PMMI provides for members and nonmembers. One option is the TechEd 365 course, Troubleshooting Packaging Machinery, which is available online in English and Spanish. Designed for newcomers to the industry, it also can serve as a refresher for seasoned employees. 

The PMMI Mechatronics Certification program consists of a series of tests based on industry-developed skill standards and is recognized by the U.S. Department of Labor and the Manufacturing Institute’s Skills Certification System. The program seeks to narrow the skills gap by:

  • Helping employers assess workers for core skills
  • Guiding schools in developing curricula to prepare students for the manufacturing workforce
  • Providing a career pathway for students looking for rewarding careers in advanced manufacturing.

PMMI’s OpX Leadership Network offers an array of online courses to help processors and OEMs solve common operational challenges. Topics include:

  • Factory Acceptance Testing 
  • Request for Proposal
  • Total Cost of Ownership 
  • Overall Equipment Effectiveness.

Solutions to assist closing the skills gap will be on display at PACK EXPO Las Vegas (Sept. 11–13, 2023, Las Vegas Convention Center). Training and productivity aids, new user interface technologies, and a range of automation tools, including robots, cobots, sensors, and software, will fill the show floor. Attendees also will be able to hear free educational presentations addressing these topics. 

As the world’s most comprehensive packaging classroom, PACK EXPO Las Vegas will provide a multitude of opportunities for students to explore career opportunities in packaging and processing. PMMI Partner Schools will present mechatronics, packaging, and processing offerings, and there will be numerous chances for attendees and exhibitors to meet students interested in careers in this industry. Students will also participate in a machine-building competition and the Amazing Packaging Race. Local high school students will have the opportunity to compete in the Future Innovators Robotics Showcase.

Keeping pace with this growing industry’s workforce needs, this year’s show will provide many opportunities to engage and excite the next generation of future leaders. On track to be the largest and broadest edition of this trade show since its inception, PACK EXPO Las Vegas will showcase solutions from over 2,000 suppliers. From engaging with colleagues and hearing from industry experts to witnessing materials, technologies, and machinery in action, attending PACK EXPO Las Vegas is the most effective way to explore packaging and processing solutions for every kind of product, entire production lines, and even the supply chain. To register and learn more, visit