Since COO Bas Jurgens started working for insect factory Protix in 2015, the company grew from 12 to 130 staff members. Last year Protix opened its first full-fledged industrial sized factory in Bergen op Zoom. The biggest challenge: attracting and hiring 35 dedicated operators within a year. So VIE People HR consultant Babet brought her a-game: “Given the fact that there wasn’t a big supply of operators in the southern province of Noord-Brabant, we had to come up with creative ways to recruit an entire new workforce.” Here’s how we pulled it off.
Although it is still a bit of a controversial idea, it won’t take long before our foods will contain ingredients derived from insects. One of the leaders in the insect industry is our client Protix. Protix breeds larvae from the Black Soldier Fly and processes them into ingredients like proteins, oils and fertilizer. The insect nutrients are a sustainable alternative for soy or fish meal in animal feed, fish feed and pet food. In the supermarket you can find OERei – eggs from chickens that were fed live Protix larvae and grains instead of soy. As of yet, Protix hasn’t quite reached the top of the food chain with its products. “Our protein flour and fat also have the potential to be used in human food”, explains COO Bas Jurgens.
We are in the new factory in Bergen op Zoom and his phone rings continuously. Years ago Bas saw the first Protix larvea hatch. Now he is responsible of the operations of both the pilot factory in Dongen as well as the new industrial sized factory in Bergen op Zoom. Our conversation is interrupted a number of times by people coming in and out, asking for signatures and giving updates. Bas is a busy man, but he won’t complain: “It is so incredibly important to us that this project works out, that I don’t mind it taking up all of our energy.”
Protix grew so fast that HR was a necessary evil no one had time for. “We had no personnel policy, no retirement plan. We had nothing in place and that needed to change as we kept on growing”, Bas explains. The biggest challenge of all was the recruitment of operators for the new factory. Bas was responsible for hiring and leading this new team of insect operators. A crew of 35 operators had to be ready to start on the day they opened the new factory, otherwise the factory couldn’t become operational. So less than a year ago VIE People was called in to help.
Bas knew he wanted to train operators to work with insects instead of teaching biologists to work in operations. He knew who and how many employees they needed and let VIE take care of the how. The initial brainstorms led to carefully tailored vacancies. A few operators applied, but none of them made the cut. “The main problem was that most operators don’t know how to write CV’s, even if they would do a great job on the work floor”, explains Babet. So she decided to pull a cowboy move. “I knew that if Bas would meet some of them in person he would get a totally different idea. So I organized a speed-date event and amongst other potential applicants I secretly invited the rejected candidates.” The plan worked. Babet: “Word of mouth spread like wildfire and it attracted lots of applicants.”
One big issue remained: how could Protix maintain its character and culture while scaling at this rate? “We tackled this by coming up with a framework of core values that we communicated to our candidates through organizing events and presentations”, explains Bas. One of those core values is social inclusivity. Bas: “We wanted to create a win-win situation by offering job opportunities for people who - for whatever reason - have poor job prospects.” After talking to the city hall to discuss how to best employ these people, Bas decided a presentation would be the most appropriate way. “I was expecting a few people, but was amazed to see over a hundred people turned up.” Eleven of them were hired and are now doing a very good job.
In total six events were organized in a year’s time to attract new operators. During the events candidates were given a tour of the factory, specially made insect-chocolates and goody bags with Protix products. The best applicants were selected and got offered a job – but not a contract. Babet: “We didn’t know exactly when the new factory would open, so all we had to offer was the promise of a job in the future.” Keeping the future employees onboard for up to six months before the start of their new job was the next hurdle. “We built relationships with them by writing them cards, inviting them for the Christmas party and having them meet the rest of the team during team building activities”, says Babet. Only two future employees changed their mind in the process.
Today the insect factory is in full operation and Protix is looking at opportunities to open new factories both in Holland and abroad. “We have assembled a great team of operators”, says Bas. “We didn’t know how it was going to turn out, but I am proud to have a team doing their work with such enthusiasm and drive.”