Southwest Baking Company Addresses Aging Workforce Challenges

Southwest Baking Company Addresses Aging Workforce Challenges

May 21, 2018
Sponsored by Rockwell Automation. A new program helps bread producer prepare for retiring workers and gain skills for increasingly complex plant technologies.

Southwest Baking Company makes its dough by producing more than 2 million cases of bread every year at its 40,000-square-foot production facility in Tolleson, Arizona. Restaurant staples ranging from sandwich loaves to breadsticks roll off the production lines at rates of up to 11,000 pound of dough per hour.

The bread-making process begins in the facility’s raw-material receiving area. Ingredients such as flour, yeast and salt are stored in holding bins until the batching system transfers them into an industrial mixer, where the ingredients are combined. The mixture then moves into production, where the bread product is formed and frozen, before being packaged, palletized and shipped to distribution centers.

These processes run 24 hours per day, nearly every day of the week, and are necessary for meeting the demand of some of the world’s largest restaurant brands. Southwest Baking is committed to keeping up and staying ahead of demands by continually investing in building our associates skill sets.

Yet for all the ingredients, equipment and precision that are required to make quality bread products at a high rate, another element is also needed – skilled workers. It’s this crucial piece of the recipe that Southwest Baking realized it needed to address. Key members of its workforce would soon be retiring, leaving the company short on highly skilled workers needed to meet aggressive production targets.

Looming Retirements, Looming Workforce Challenges
Southwest Baking found itself facing a dilemma that has become all too familiar for many manufacturers and industrial producers – the looming retirement of aging skilled workers.

According to a report from Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute, nearly 3.5 million U.S. manufacturing jobs will likely need to be filled during the next decade – and an estimated 2.7 million of those jobs will result from retirements of existing workers. Unfortunately, a shortage of skilled workers will result in 2 million of those 3.5 million jobs going unfilled.

The workforce-availability issue stands to have significant implications not only on individual manufacturers but also on global productivity, including threatening to reduce economic growth by 40 percent.

The more immediate concern at Southwest Baking, however, was maintaining a skilled workforce for its bread-making operations.

The company’s most knowledgeable maintenance technician was on the verge of retirement, and the company didn’t have anyone to fill that role when the technician left. Additionally, the company had recently replaced the outdated custom batch system used for its dough mixers with a flexible batch-recipe management system. This required a maintenance technician who could support the upgraded system and play a role in its future growth.

“We know we need young blood in our operation,” said Robert Wroblewski, plant engineer at Southwest Baking Company. “We have some people who are not retiring right now, but will be in the coming years. And we know that the machine technology is growing faster and faster, so we need technicians who can support these systems in the future.”

Accelerated Training: A Recipe for Success
In fact, the company did have young blood in its workforce with one of its most junior employees. Chris Belzunce, [22], had been working at Southwest Baking for four years as a trainee, mostly on a part-time basis while he attended high school.

Belzunce hadn’t even started college yet, and his only knowledge about manufacturing processes and industrial automation control systems was based on his limited and part-time work experience at the company.

Southwest Baking management knew it wanted to invest its future in Belzunce, and it had an immediate need for a maintenance technician, so the company decided to enroll him in a Rockwell Automation Accelerated Skills Academy (ASA) training program.

The ASA program was created to address exactly the kind of workforce availability challenges that Southwest Baking was experiencing. The ASA is an intensive training program with a multicraft curriculum that aims to empower workers with skills and knowledge in three months that would otherwise take as much as eight years of on-the-job learning to acquire.

Belzunce participated in the inaugural ASA program held in the Phoenix area. The program included two primary phases. The first phase, five weeks, addressed electrical, mechanical and safety concepts, covering everything from AC/DC concepts and mechanical print reading to safety standards and electrical troubleshooting. The second phase, seven weeks, focused on integrated architecture skills and knowledge, including Ethernet design and troubleshooting, controller fundamentals, maintenance and troubleshooting.

From Junior Employee to Senior Talent
Belzunce completed the program and returned to Southwest Baking as a new worker.

“A year ago, he wouldn’t have been left alone in the plant,” Wroblewski said. “Today, he has the knowledge and skillset to handle any job.”

Immediately after completing the program, Belzunce was assigned to new and more complex projects, and began contributing in new ways. In one of his first projects, for example, he helped repair a failing human machine interface system. He also worked with a fabricator to design and build a new machine as part of the company’s new GS1 labeling efforts.

“I’d consider him one of my more senior guys, not in terms of his years but in terms of his knowledge,” Wroblewski said. “He has the knowledge to do whatever job I need him to now. I feel very confident with what he does, and I trust him all over the plant. That was not the case a year ago, but now we know he has the skills to handle the job.”

More than giving Belzunce the skills and knowledge he needed to take on a new job, the ASA program also gave him a new level of respect for the manufacturing field, helping him see it as a career path as he begins his pursuit of an engineering degree at Northern Arizona University.

“Coming out of high school, I don’t think any kid knows what they’re going to do for a living,” Belzunce said. “I had no idea. This program opened up my eyes to what I want to do. Now I want to control every part of a machine that I can.”

Sponsored Recommendations

Voice your opinion!

To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of IndustryWeek, create an account today!