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Case study

Predicting and preventing worker shortages for one of the world’s biggest food production companies

Over the last 18 months, COVID-19 outbreaks on food production lines caused significant shortages, not least as demand for essential supplies surged. For the company we worked with, disruption was driving up prices and creating meat shortages for their customers: the world’s biggest fast-food chains.

We used Faculty Frontier to predict which of their 120+ production facilities were most at-risk of labour shortages at a time of crisis, enabling the business to direct interventions where they were most needed, preventing plant closures and minimising disruption across the food supply chain.


Customer

A processor and marketer of meats, including chicken, beef and pork that works with the world’s leading fast-food chains. They generate over $40bn in annual sales and have over 120,000 employees across the US.  


Problem

In late 2021, our customer introduced a vaccine mandate for their US workers to minimise COVID-19 outbreaks on meat packing production lines. But this increased the risk of worker shortages in a straining labour market.

Labour shortages have long been a challenge for US manufacturers, including the food industry. A decrease in migrant workers, low levels of recruitment and high employee turnover, have all contributed to workforce pressures on distributors, producers and consumer packaged goods companies.

COVID-19 exacerbated this problem in two main ways:

Shifting consumer demand: Food producers had to manage the shift in demand away from restaurants and cafes towards grocery stores. This lead to higher prices, delays and spot shortages of a range of products. 

COVID-19 outbreaks in production plants: The shoulder-to-shoulder nature of production lines and limited access to protective gear put meat and poultry workers at constant risk of infection. At the height of the outbreaks, US meat packing production fell by 60%. Many fast-food chains experienced shortages, with Taco Bell reducing its menu for several weeks. Similarly, here in the UK, McDonald’s milkshake shortages hit the headlines.  

Following plant-wide shutdowns, the company introduced a vaccine mandate to protect their employees and ensure operations could continue. 

However, there was a known risk that the mandate would be unpopular among some workers. Management needed to maximise vaccine uptake while taking proactive measures to mitigate the risk of closure as a result of worker shortages.

This urgency, coupled with the scale of the organisation, made this extremely challenging. Using Faculty Frontier, we provided forecasts allowing them to prioritise their internal efforts and optimise their decision-making. Specifically, we predicted which plants were most at-risk of shutdown and would cause the most disruption if they were to be affected.


Solution

Frontier was used to forecast which sites were most at-risk of closure due to workforce shortages. This enabled the company to better focus management attention and cash incentives where they were needed in a business-critical emergency.

Six weeks prior to the vaccination deadline, we rapidly deployed our technology to build a picture of current vaccination rates for staff, adding an array of different data sources including location, demographic, operational demand data and COVID-19 prevalence. We used these models to provide early warning of risk:

  • By plant – Identify which plants were most at risk of disruption and where it would have the biggest impact on supply chains
  • By job type – Forecast risk for all major job functions

Results were used in the daily update sessions with the executive team to monitor the changing situation leading up to their vaccine mandate deadline. Instead of more common point forecasts which assign a probability to a range of different potential outcomes, our forecasts quantified uncertainty in the form of easy-to-understand confidence intervals so reliable, trustworthy decisions could be made.


Impact

Our hyper-accurate forecasts of workforce shortages enabled our customer to take proactive action at site-level to avoid shortages that would have caused major disruption in food supply chains.

We delivered predictions on which sites were most likely to be worst affected by staffing shortages, with a range of confidence intervals. This enabled their operational and business teams to more easily engage with our statistical forecasts, and sense-check them based on their knowledge of conditions on the ground.

These detailed, actionable forecasts enabled the management team to anticipate workforce shortages – enabling prioritisation of vaccination and hiring decisions leading up to the mandate deadline.

Our customer vaccinated tens of thousands of employees against COVID-19 following the announcement of the mandate, bringing the total portion of their vaccinated workforce to 96%. A retrospective assessment found that Faculty’s forecasts were 99.5% accurate, significantly exceeding expectations on speed and granularity. Not only were the forecasts robust across the different business units, but they also incorporated weekly updates based on daily interventions that they were making to increase vaccine uptake.

Such measures helped maintain a consistent level of production capacity with limited plant closures and more time to tackle wider challenges across supply chains.

99.55%

accuracy of forecasts (aggregate)

96%

of workforce vaccinated

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