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Flexible hours come to American manuf. Brilliant!

This is part of bringing back American manufacturing. Fantastic!


Flexible Hours Come to the Factory: A Look Inside Land O’Lakes’ Plant

Manufacturers are trying to attract and keep workers. We go to the floor of the dairy plant in Minnesota to see how it works.


By Gwynn Guilford, WSJ

March 6, 2024 5:30 am ET


MELROSE, Minn.—Until last April, there had really been just two ways to make 350,000 pounds of cheese a day at the Land O’Lakes plant here: Start at 5 in the morning and work till 5 at night, or the other way around.


Rigid factory shifts were the default for churning out cheddar, as they are at factories the world over that make all kinds of products. The most efficient way to keep production humming uninterrupted, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, is to start and end in unison, bundling dozens of individuals’ efforts into a single unit of labor.


At Land O’Lakes, those days are over. They ended last year, when the member-owned cooperative began hiring for a handful of roles in its Melrose plant, along with a few of its animal-feed facilities, that let employees choose their own start times and shift lengths. It worked: Those positions proved easier to fill than full-time openings, and had the knock-on benefit of boosting retention. Looking to duplicate those successes, the company has rolled out what it calls its “flex work” program at 60 of its 140 sites, and plans to expand it to all of its factories in coming years.


Land O’Lakes is making these changes because, like many manufacturing firms, it is struggling to fill positions, even as the labor market cools—making it ever-harder to keep up with demand. This problem is set to worsen in years to come as the rapid aging of the U.S. population continues to constrain the supply of would-be workers. A key way to counter that squeeze is tapping new sources of labor—people with young children, aging parents to care for and others whose obligations make it hard to work traditional employer-set hours.


“There are less and less people going into manufacturing every year, and for us it ran across every category,” says Yone Dewberry, chief supply-chain officer at Land O’Lakes. “If you look at the demographics of the U.S., this is an obvious long-term problem.”

Raven Nelson, with sons Zeke, 4, and Gabriel, 2, needed a job where she could pick her hours.


Raven Nelson checks her family’s schedule in their kitchen in Melrose, Minn. Raven and her husband work different shifts to handle jobs and family.


New pool of workers

Raven Nelson is exactly the kind of worker the company’s flex program is looking to attract. Her husband, Garrett Nelson, works full time—pulling 12-hours shifts, sometimes at night, with several days off each week—and the couple have three children under 6.

This time last year, Raven Nelson had the low-rigor part-time job you might expect to be coveted by a mother in her situation. Manning the post office in Burtrum, Minn., population 83, entailed sorting a little bit of mail and streaming a lot of Netflix.


But her job hours were fixed: four hours every morning except Sunday. Her husband’s 12-hour shifts at the Land O’Lakes plant started at 5 p.m. Their lives were an unsustainable blur of work, diapers and way too little sleep.


“It was terrible,” she says. “I wanted to rip my hair out of my head.”


A job where you pick your own hours, though—that would make it manageable, letting her slot her shifts into her husband’s days off. So, when the Melrose plant advertised its first flex roles—for barrel-handling operators—in early April last year, Raven Nelson applied. A few weeks later, sporting a hairnet, helmet and bright yellow earplugs, she sealed her first barrel of cheese.


Help Wanted, We’re Flexible

Manufacturing firms are struggling to fill positions, and the aging of the U.S. population is holding down the supply of would-be workers.



Birth of ‘flex’

Rigid schedules have always been the default of factory life.

“Historically, when employers are in the driver’s seat, they want to keep it simple from their perspective and say, ‘If you want this job, we’re going to tell you when to work, and it’s take it or leave it,’ ” says Aaron Sojourner, a Minnesota-based labor economist at the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research.


The rigid schedule makes sense logistically. Each day, 70 or so trucks from nearby Land O’Lakes member farms empty milk at the Melrose plant. Converting the unending inflow of milk into 500-pound blocks of cheese requires running the factory 24 hours a day. Divvying the day up into two shifts makes it easier for supervisors to ensure sufficient staffing.

The Land O’Lakes dairy manufacturing plant in Melrose, Minn.


But in recent years, the plant has struggled to find candidates willing to work full-time—a problem emerging across the company. And, like many employers, Land O’Lakes found its rigid traditional shift system buckling under the strains of Covid disruptions. Employees needed time off more frequently as they struggled to balance work and family obligations, says Dewberry, the Land O’Lakes executive.


When companies need to boost hiring, higher wages are usually the lever they pull because it’s logistically easier to adjust to higher labor costs. But “giving workers more control over their schedules is a very valuable aspect of the job,” says Sojourner.


Remote work helped allay scheduling problems for the company’s white-collar employees. Figuring out a fix for blue-collar employees proved trickier. Shortening shifts alone didn’t help, says Dewberry. True flexibility meant allowing for day-to-day variations of people’s primary commitments.


“We asked ourselves, ‘Why do we have to start at 6 or 7?’ ” he says. “We had to think about it in terms of, ‘How do we wrap the work around the employees?’ Not the other way around—that was the traditional way.”


Blue-collar labor crunch

Job markets in many industries have loosened over the past year as the pandemic has faded and the effects of high interest rates cooled demand. Not so manufacturing.

Factories are hiring around six people for every 10 openings posted each month, compared with eight or nine in the five years before the pandemic, Labor Department data show. That ratio is near the lowest level in records going back to 2000.

The main problem is the aging of the manufacturing workforce. In the factory sector, the median manufacturing employee is 44.1, two years older than that for U.S. workers overall, Labor Department data show. Some 2.5 million factory workers will retire by 2030, contributing to a shortage of around 2.1 million manufacturing jobs, according to projections by Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute.

Some factories are embracing automation to counter worker shortages. But at the Melrose plant, machines are already doing just about all the work they can feasibly do, says Tom Slavick, the Melrose plant manager. The factory is so thoroughly automated that in many parts of the factory, spotting a worker in the dense network of pipes, vats, presses and conveyor belts is a little like bird-watching.


Flex in action

Flex employees work with their supervisors every couple of weeks to choose their shifts. The supervisors then cobble together the schedule each day of the week, ensuring that all positions are covered. If there is a gap in the schedule, the supervisor works things out with employees.


The Melrose plant rolled out the program by hiring flex workers for the barrel-handling-operator role, an entry-level position. This made sense, says Slavick, because unlike most roles at the plant, barrel-handling operators work in groups, which meant flex workers could pulse in and out without much disruption. Building-management roles were next, since coordinating timing precisely and continuously wasn’t crucial to production.

However, as time goes on, flex workers have been trained for more-skilled positions, with the shift supervisor rotating in full-time employees to patch any gaps. “There are no specific roles they can’t do with the right training,” says Slavick. “The challenge is more, ‘How can I make sure I can cover each function 24/7?’ ”


There are some trade-offs. The company needs two or three flex workers for every full-time employee, raising the cost of training, says Dewberry. There are also increased costs that come with figuring out the weekly shifts. Some of this, however, is offset by increased retention and cutting back on overtime pay.


Initial signs have been promising. Before the flex program, one factory had 26 full-time open roles without a single application—but when it posted a single ad for a flex position, more than 100 people applied. Across the company, Land O’Lakes is seeing twice the volume of applicants for each flex role as for full-time openings. Retention is better too.

Hiring for flex roles has helped with filling full-time positions, as well. The plant’s new utilities supervisor, for example, came on as a building-maintenance flex hire, a job he took to keep himself busy after an early retirement. Finding he liked the work, he switched to full-time and was recently promoted to lead the team. Some workers have gone the other way, switching from full-time to flex due to a life-changing event, such as the need to care for family.


Raven Nelson, with her son Zeke, says she has changed her schedule several times.

Making the shift

Nelson has changed her schedule several times since she started at Land O’Lakes nine months ago, plugging the gaps in her husband’s schedule when he switched to the day shift so they could still take turns watching the children.


Then in December, Garrett Nelson left his Land O’Lakes job to follow his career ambition of working in law enforcement. This time, though, it was all right: Raven simply switched her shifts to his days off. Instead of tag-teaming between work and child care, the couple has time to have dinner and do bedtime as a family each night.


“To be able to work the hours I want—it’s honestly the best thing any parent could ask for,” she says. “Because you need that flexibility.”


Gwynn Guilford is a writer in Washington, D.C. She can be reached at reports@wsj.com.


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