A top-level data view reflects a more significant transformation underway among food retailers than product suppliers. But that’s not because product suppliers are behind. In fact, the manufacturers and food processors that constitute product supplier brands have long deployed a significant number of digital skills. For example, in 2016, only about 7% of food retail postings in the dataset required AAA skills compared to about 20% of supplier postings. Supplier postings reflect a steady march in growing their digital skills base in relatively the same proportions as past years. It is an indication that the basics of the business have not changed as significantly.
Food retailers, however, show a significant change in both volume and kind of advanced digital skills sought.
- Digital delivery: These are the skills needed to build applications for end-users, both external and internal, such as e-commerce and employee scheduling. Food retailers started ramping postings for these skills aggressively in 2018 and demand has continued to grow.
- Data engineering: These skills are data infrastructure related. Job postings for data engineering grew dramatically in 2018. However, they leveled off subsequently, likely an indication that the data infrastructure was now largely in place.
- Data science: Demand for these skills didn’t spike until 2019, after the data infrastructure was in place to support their work. Demand remains exceptionally high among food retailers, on par with digital delivery.
- Automation: These skills are used for both robotic and more software- or process-based automation. While the need for these skills is ramping up steadily, job postings do not reflect a fundamental shift in the need for these skills. With “dark stores” and other pick-and-pack automation stories in the news, one might have expected a large jump in job postings for automation skills. However, these skills are likely being obtained more through third-party vendors than from in-house hiring. In future years, as food retailers shift from “build” to “operate” mode, more of these skills may be hired in-house.
What’s happening and what could change?
Interviews with industry executives and Deloitte client practitioners suggest even more is happening beneath the surface. For instance, food companies are hiring these digital skills for all departments, not just in traditional IT departments. In fact, our interviews reveal that most of the important digital innovation is likely being driven by parts of the business outside of IT. This change coincides with a shift from program- or project-based management of technology to a more customer-centric and modern product management approach. Digital teams are using agile methods, such as scrum, to build applications centered on external and internal customers, both of whom are more digitally savvy and have higher expectations for what applications should deliver. For example, store associates are being provided applications for facilitating pick-and-pack shopping, interacting with customers through text, taking mini training courses, and managing their schedules.
In part because they will use these applications, job postings for frontline employees are also now frequently listing a requirement for some form of digital skills. For example, the analysis for retail revealed that one in four job postings for cashiers as well as retail store associates, plus three in four job postings for sales representatives, required digital skills. By 2020, the demand for digital skills among cashiers specifically was five-fold higher than 2017 levels. There are examples among product suppliers as well. Nine in 10 job postings for scheduler/operations coordinators as well as service supervisors required digital skills.
Food retailers currently are going through a bigger shift in their digital skills hiring but there are developments on the horizon that could disrupt product supplier hiring patterns as well. Perhaps foremost is a need to provide greater transparency throughout the supply chain and meet expanded sustainability goals. Digital systems and associated skills are needed to capture, integrate, and make sense of the data to drive these transparency and sustainability functions. A scale up in direct-to-consumer (DTC) channel sales, more private-label competition from web retailers with deeper data on customers, or a move to small-batch manufacturing and niche brands (e.g., personalized food-as-medicine offerings) could also shake up digital skill needs by necessitating more digitally driven business models to deliver and compete.
Facing the challenge ahead
The food industry is far from finished in its digital transformation and journey to a new future of work. Given how difficult it is for the industry to find enough workers right now, let alone those with the digital skills sought out almost universally, it is tempting to start a scramble for technology talent. However, another approach is likely to work better. Food industry companies should first ask themselves some important questions in a broader future of work context:
- Are we taking the time to think through the actual new work to be done and rearchitect it in ways that will allow our people and technology to work together and perform at their best?
- When redesigning work, are we putting the employee at the center, and complimenting their experience through these new and more interesting technologies and skills they get to use?
- Is our company creating a sense of belonging for everyone? Will our approach to diversity, equity, and inclusion, our social stands, and our contributions to sustainability make it easier to win over digital talent?
- Does our company culture embrace technology or are we traditionally hesitant? How well does our leadership, from the CEO on down, model the culture we want?