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The Great Resignation: Exploring its impact on the food and ag industry today

‘The Great Resignation’ a term coined by Professor Anthony Klotz is the global phenomenon that has seen high percentages of employees leaving their jobs since 2021. This phenomenon is known to be motivated by several factors among people of different cultural backgrounds. These factors include: a demand for more flexibility at work, the decision to prioritise mental and physical health and a re-evaluation of long-term goals. 

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, 4 million Americans quit their jobs in July 2021 and in the UK, an Office for National Statistics report released in October 2021, identified that the number of vacancies in July to September 2021 was a record high of 1,102,000. According to a Pew Research Center survey, employees from black, Asian, Hispanic and other multi-ethnic backgrounds who quit their job in the US in 2021, were more likely than white employees to leave due to a lack of flexibility (52% vs 38%) and even wanting to relocate to a different area (41% vs 30%). 

Despite the ‘The Great Resignation’ being coined in the US, its impact can be felt around the world, and statistics have shown that young adults within the Gen Z age range are at the centre of discussions around this topic. This is supported by PwC’s Workforce Pulse Survey findings for March 2021 which states that, “45% of Gen Z and 47% millennial employees surveyed said they are willing to give up 10% or more of their future earnings in exchange for the option to work virtually.” Remote and hybrid working practices have become a determining factor for younger workers in deciding whether to remain in a role or not. Though older demographics have been identified as part of ‘The Great Resignation’ movement too, as Yahoo News UK reported that a large number of employees over 50 have been retiring from the workforce 

‘The Great Resignation’ continues to raise key questions amongst food and ag employers about what needs to be done to retain talent and the image of the industry in the eyes of the public. Exploring new ways to build a more diverse pool of talent in the industry and retain employees is a pressing challenge on the minds of global food and ag companies today.  

Stuart Goodinson, is the Managing Director of De Lacy Executive and Merston Peters, which are recruitment specialist providers working across the agriculture industry. Sharing his thoughts on what triggered ‘The Great Resignation’ in food and ag, Stuart told us, “the number one reason as to why people get in touch with De Lacy looking for a new role is because they do not feel appreciated. Salary is [no longer] a measure of appreciation”. Explaining what employees are looking for when reading job applications he said, “Candidates are looking for support, career progression, encouragement, mentoring, training and small thank you’s. To be more transparent, companies must share their goals, strategy, and progression [opportunities] – they need to let people know what impact they are having on the [industry]”.  

These sentiments were also shared by Natalie Percival, the HR Director for Global Agriculture at McCain Foods who has been in the company for over nine years. Natalie agreed that COVID-19 has contributed to a change in perspective amongst workers who may have been furloughed for long periods of time or adjusted to new ways of working during the pandemic.  

She shared that recruitment is a key challenge for McCain Foods and across the global food and ag industry. “It seems to be so much harder to find people for vacancies across the board. It’s hard to find the right talent and [potential and current] employees are being offered competing offers which creates a knock-on effect,” she explained. While adjusting to a new reality and new ways of working, food and ag companies are also losing talent to competitor companies in the industry which is forcing employers to think of new ways to promote an inclusive working environment that makes employees feel represented and encourages them to stay within the company. Natalie explains that despite the challenges of ‘The Great Resignation’, staff retention at McCain Foods has been quite promising with 84% of employees agreeing that they are intending to stay with the company for the next 12 months in a recent employee engagement survey. 

When it comes to creating a more diverse pool of talent, Natalie recognises that a key element of this is prioritising inclusive language on job applications and diversifying where jobs are posted to engage new candidates. “People don’t know about the roles available, and this is definitely what we are seeing [at McCain]…The people who fill our traditional agriculture roles [tend to] come from a farming background”, Natalie told us. This argument is also identified in statistics from our 2020 WFA survey which reveal that 53% of farmers entered the industry due to a family business.  

For Jean-Marc Robert, the Director of HR for COFCO International, skills and experience are seen as a strong indicator to explain the shortage of workers across the food and ag industry. “There are a lot of tough jobs. There is a lot of competition, and many jobs require key qualifications. If you work in ag, you won’t only need to understand the engineering techniques, but you will also need to understand the politics and trading rules. A lot of things are connected.” 

What can food and ag companies do to tackle these challenges? 

Stuart believes there needs to be a continued focus on staff retention and a more diverse approach toward recruitment that places “people abilities over CV skillsets”. He also adds that there needs to be an emphasis on “building businesses around people rather than expecting employees to fit in to the business strategy”. Jean-Marc explained that COFCO International has already adopted hybrid and remote working rules in several countries and embracing this new reality for the long-term is the way forward. Natalie Percival believes the answer lies in a commitment to continued “communication between employers and employees through regular feedback opportunities such as 1:1s and annual surveys” which help businesses to understand how employees are feeling. She goes on to say, “[at McCain] we’re seeing the highest engagement scores in teams where the leaders have regular 1:1s with everyone in the team, which really speaks volumes as to the value of dedicating time to talk to and listen to your team members”. 

Though, ‘The Great Resignation’ began in 2021, it is still a global phenomenon that is making companies take a flexible approach to working to meet employee expectations. These changes to working environments are expected to have a long-term impact on food and ag, and the sector must adapt now to ensure they are recruiting and retaining the best talent to futureproof our industry. 


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