Monday, June 21, 2010

Just Say Yes: An Open Letter To The Food Industry.

I remember the first job I tried to get.  A guy in my class was working at a Ponderosa Steakhouse as a dishwasher and was let go.  I overheard him telling someone about his firing so I knew I had a chance to capitalize.

I went down to the Ponderosa and filled out an application.  I was thrilled when they wanted to interview me.  'I've got this one', I thought to myself as I waited for the General Manager to join me in the booth.  I knew they needed a night time dishwasher and I had spent the last 6 years at family farm boot camp where I had to haul in firewood by the wagon full, shovel hog manure, and wrestle hogs down that needed castrated or moved to other pens.  Dish washing would be a cakewalk.

The manager interviewed me and towards the end posed some odd question where he asked me to interpret a quote.  It was a psychological test where the quote could be read in a number of different ways.  He told me there was no wrong answer.  I didn't get the job... as a dishwasher that they needed.  Maybe there was a wrong answer after all.

It's been many years since then, and I have gone from wanting to be the Chef-owner of my own restaurant to being interested in the food industry, to wanting a career in the industry.  I put myself in debt and went to college.  At one point, I had to take a couple years off because I had no money.  Once I was able to get financial aid I decided I would make sure I didn't leave without my degree.  It wasn't easy.

For many quarters I would start off on a full-time schedule, then drop a class just so I could have money to live off of.  It was also very routine for me to return books I had bought as I had run out of money.  Most of my college education was gleaned off of what was said in lecture and recitation, because I didn't have books.  I had some academic set-backs as well.  I struggled in a few classes where I had to take them over, which destroyed my GPA, although none of those classes(except accounting) dealt with my degree.

With one quarter left and the end in sight, I was informed that I had maxed out my financial aid and I would only get a small amount of grant money for my last quarter of school.  I was several thousand dollars short and had to get my sister to co-sign a private loan just so I could finish.

That last year I tried to get hired by several food companies ahead of time so I could start work right after graduating.  These companies would skim off the people with the highest GPA and most extra-curricular activities, which left me out.  Everything is computerized now, so instead of pleading with someone in HR to consider the grades I got in food science and ops management classes, a computer just automatically rejected me.

My sister pleaded with me to manage my expectations and take any job, anywhere just to start making money.  My argument was that it'd do more damage to work heavy hours in a job that is going to take my energy away from finding work that I really wanted to do.

So I've had a couple decent things here and there, but no real start to a food industry career.  The food industry was sold to me as a vacuum for graduates, that there are more jobs than food science & technology grads to fill them.  I was filled with thoughts of bidding wars over my valuable services.  I'm still trying to get my career going.  My aspirations don't seem very far-fetched to me.  I want to get hired into the food industry, preferably into a training program where I am able to learn about the company and move up.  I don't expect to be a regional sales manager or a plant manager straight away, but I also know that my skills aren't going to be put to good use as an hourly machine operator, either.

The food industry seems to be taking advantage of the recession.  In my 2 and a half years of looking, I've seen the job requirements change.  I recently saw a posting for a 3rd shift production supervisor in Eastern Ohio.  The ad stated that they wanted someone with at least 5-7 years of experience in a very specific manufacturing process.  Starting pay, $30,000 - $35,000.  Greedy.  First off, how many qualified candidates do you expect to find on the eastern border of Ohio... with 5-7 years of experience in a specific manufacturing process?  Second, what self respecting production supervisor with 5-7 years of experience is going to take a 3rd shift job for that little money.

Of course, this is anecdotal, but it underscores a troubling trend for the food industry.  This is an industry built on progress and innovation.  Food companies should have a minimum number of people that they train for management, R&D, and QA every year.  Sure, the smaller companies can't afford these training programs, but they get people a few years after those programs and other people that were in those companies.  This is how the talent cross-pollinates within the industry.  The trainee moves up after the seasoned manager moves on to the smaller company for a promotion in title and a raise in pay.  This is the circle of life in the food industry, or at least it was.  There is now something jamming up the gears of progress.  I have the solution though, if you want to hear it.

Just say yes.

Don't let the computer or the HR generalist making $25,000/yr hand out all those free 'no's.  The no's have a cost associated with them which lies in wasted talent.  In their place are people that are very good at being students.  Not to sound completely cynical, there are many very good candidates with 3.0 and above GPA's, but there are also many very good candidates with lower GPA's.  The inherent flaw is in selecting pristine candidates for an industry that isn't very pristine.  What happens when people that locked themselves in their rooms to memorize facts and figures to maintain there GPA encounter adversity and failure in the workplace?  How will they handle change and uncertainty?  

I'm a fighter, a cellar climber.  Nothing I got came easy and I don't have any successes without several failures to go along with it.  I learn from my mistakes and I've learned a lot, but I get passed up a lot, too.  How many more are out there just like me, who are smart, capable, creative, and know they can do a great job if given the opportunity.  My confidence is strengthened through the failures in my life.  Every time I couldn't, I learned why, so next time I could.

What is a company to do?  Talk to us.  Meet us.  Shake our hand and have a conversation.  If after that, you don't feel we're right for a position, then tell us why and we'll learn from it and be smarter for the next interview.  You don't like cookie cutter resumes?  Well we hate cookie cutter rejections.  Man up, and say why we aren't good enough.  It could be a simple misunderstanding that makes us a stronger candidate in your eyes.  It could be something we were unaware of and you would have just helped us tremendously.

About me:  I have a Bachelor's of Science from The Ohio State University in Food Business Management.  That's Operations Management with a heavy emphasis on Food Science.  I have several years of management experience in the restaurant industry, just under a year of experience in sales, and less than 6 months experience in Quality Assurance.  I retain technical information well and have no trouble with both written and spoken communication.  You need an idea, I've got plenty.  You need someone to travel, I'm there.  You need a problem solved, I'm your man.  My main interests are Sales & Marketing, R & D, and Operations Management.  My goal is to one day be in a position of leadership over a large food company.


  1. I had the same problems when I was looking for a job, more difficult than the cookie cutter "no"s is aiting for companies to respond! I had interviews at one of the world's largest food companies only because a third party HR person found my resume, the interview was june 2009, last I checked the position is STILL open a year later.

  2. Well these big companies need to step up. I in no way feel entitled, but we do depend on the big companies to carry the hiring and training of entry level professionals - people with technical degrees, but not direct manufacturing experience. By potting down the hiring of these workers, they create a bubble that will lead to a major brain drain in the future.


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