#192 – Inside Our Industry – Flexible Hours Come to the Factory: A Look Inside Land O’Lakes’ Plant

Posted on | Inside Our Industry

Employers, especially manufacturers, are getting creative when it comes to ways to attract new workers and retain current ones. The following, in part, appeared in the Wall Street Journal and details how a Land O’Lakes cheese factory in Minnesota made the necessary adjustments to do just that.

Flexible Hours Come to the Factory:  A Look Inside Land O’Lakes’ Plant
By Gwynn Guilford , Wall Street Journal, March 6, 2024

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.

Flex employees work with their supervisors (at Land O’Lakes) 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.

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.

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