Noddle: Employment Crisis Looming

The supermarket industry is approaching a perfect storm in terms of employment challenges, Jeff Noddle, chairman and chief executive officer of Minneapolis-based Supervalu, told the Western Association of Food Chains convention here last week. You have Baby Boomers moving close to retirement and giving way to Generation X, which is not large enough to fill all the positions they

PALM DESERT, Calif. — The supermarket industry is approaching a perfect storm in terms of employment challenges, Jeff Noddle, chairman and chief executive officer of Minneapolis-based Supervalu, told the Western Association of Food Chains convention here last week.

“You have Baby Boomers moving close to retirement and giving way to Generation X, which is not large enough to fill all the positions they will vacate, and Generation Y, which wants to move up the ranks quickly,” he said. “Our job as an industry is to educate those future generations.”

Educating the workforce and retaining it is the most important challenge facing the industry today, Noddle said.

With 64 million Baby Boomers eligible to retire by 2010 and not enough Generation X'ers to take their place, “we're facing a loss of educational capital and institutional knowledge at the same time we'll be competing for a smaller pool of workers with different kinds of demands,” he said.

“And though the competition within the industry for that smaller pool will be fierce, we as an industry need to work together to attract more high-potential people,” he said.

To attract that caliber of worker, the industry needs to create ongoing educational opportunities, Noddle indicated. “Even as we compete for talent, we must be able to attract top talent,” he explained, “and we need to find opportunities to collaborate.”

One such opportunity, Noddle said, is the new annual meeting schedule Food Marketing Institute announced while he was serving as its chairman — a biennial education forum to be held in alternate years with the floor exhibit show — “to bring retailers, vendors and scholars together over several days to figure out how to educate potential employees and show them what a dynamic industry this is.”

Acknowledging that the grocery industry is “not a really sexy industry,” Noddle said companies must find new ways to create a buzz about the “vast opportunities and the excellent, challenging career paths it offers — possibly by using new online tools that attract younger people.”

The next generations are also interested in inclusion, he indicated. “At Albertsons, we've found that affinity groups can be effective — Hispanics or African Americans or other grass-roots groups with common interests.”

Supervalu hosted a summit for affinity groups last year, he said, “and we found these groups bring a lot of passion to a company.”

Using that passion is a way to get deeper firsthand knowledge about how they think and feel about their employer, he said. “I met with each group separately, and you might think you are offering equal opportunities, until you talk to one of these groups about subtle ways we put walls up.”

The industry also needs to identify high-potential employees “and create programs to retain them,” Noddle said.