Some years back I was visiting a salmon farm in northern Norway in a village that could only be described as being in the middle of nowhere. Besides the farm, there was also a fishing fleet in the area which went after cod, and a couple of ship yards. That was it. You were either farming fish, catching fish, or supporting those that were.

Out of nowhere suddenly appeared a massive ex-Soviet transport jet with its give-away top-mounted wings. I looked at my host to see if he was worried; he didn’t even seem to notice the jet. Man, I thought, these Norwegians are a stoic lot. Here they are getting invaded and not even a flicker on his face.

Noticing my obvious concern, he said that the jet was there for the cod.

What?

The area had difficulties enough attracting young people to work at the salmon farms or be deckhands on ships, let alone work at the closed-up processing plant. And, even if they could attract the labor, there was no way they could pay Norwegian salaries and still make a profit. It was cheaper to fly the cod, via the massive transport, to China, have it cleaned and filleted and then flown back to Norway, then to process it locally.

If I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes, I wouldn’t have believed it. Back in the UK I mentioned this to my brother-in-law who works for Total gas. He said the problem is typical; often times where there are jobs, there aren’t any people or if there is, they are either unwilling or unqualified to do the work.

Jumping to the recent IPPE tradeshow in Atlanta, labor seemed to be on everyone’s mind. This, I quickly realized was not just a problem in the USA and EU, but one even facing companies in population-heavy countries such as India, Nigeria, and Indonesia.

In processing, you either pay people a decent enough salary to attract them to the job – and then go bust because your profit margins are so tight – or you keep your payroll as low as possible and be in a constant scramble trying to find people that are not only willing to do the work, but who can also pass a company drug test. Already, some companies are looking the other way regarding this requirement and as more and more US states legalize cannabis, this problem will only become more acute.

Many US processing plants have become reliant on labor from legal refugees from Somalia, for example, legal workers using guest passes from Mexico, or illegal workers from Mexico and Central America. If the current administration lives up to its promises, much of this mentioned labor force will disappear. While people might shout: “Jobs for Americans”, you have to be naive beyond belief to think that most Americans of any color are willing to put in the long, tough hours on a processing plant floor.

In the UK, thanks to Brexit, its foreign agriculture labor force could disappear (see more in the UK feature) which will affect highly its agriculture industry. One pig farmer told me that without the Poles working his farm and at the processing plant where his pigs get converted into pork, he would have to close down. “I’ve tried hiring an all-British workforce, it was impossible. Young British people are not willing to work on a farm.”

Even in India, where there are potential workers galore, there are labor issues. Have your chicken processing plant be labor intensive and you’ll run into health and safety issues.

At IPPE, Grant Parsons of Prime was showing me the company’s latest piece of kit which can eliminate 16 workers off the processing line. “It’s not that we’re putting people out of work with equipment such as this, we’re allowing companies to stay in business. One company told us recently they had 80 openings at their processing plant – they were able to fill 10 – and this was far from being an isolated case.”

With a world’s population which is doubling every decade or so, eliminating jobs seems to be the last thing any company would need to do in order to survive. They shouldn’t be designing equipment to eliminate 16 jobs, they should be figuring out to add 32. But the reality is, if you’re not taking the steps now to add automation and robotics into your plant, buy the whitewash now for your company windows. You’ll be needing it soon when you go out of business.

On a side note, thank you all who said hi at IPPE and who picked up a copy of MPJ. Out of the 15 publications or so that were on display, at the end of the show MPJ was the only one which had zero copies left.