A dairy plant that operates 24 hours a day may not seem like an obvious place to find the coveted job perk of a flexible work schedule.

Yet Land O'Lakes has seen so much success offering shorter and rotating shifts at a central Minnesota facility that the cooperative is bringing the practice nationwide.

"When we post a job with flexible work at one of our facilities, we get two to three times the number of applicants that we would have gotten for a normal job, and we get them in the first 24 hours," said Yone Dewberry, the company's chief supply chain officer. "We tend to get not only more, but more qualified applicants."

Nearly half of American manufacturers are now offering some kind of flexibility to production employees, according to industry surveys, and demand for the benefit is growing.

The shift away from historically rigid schedules comes amid an ongoing labor shortage that could leave more than 2 million unfilled manufacturing jobs nationwide by the end of the decade.

"For manufacturers that want to attract and retain talent effectively, offering workplace flexibility to production workers acts as a crucial differentiator in a tight labor market," the Manufacturing Institute said in a recent report.

The work-life juggle is a constant battle for many Americans, especially those managing caretaking duties. Raven Nelson said that without a flexible schedule, she wouldn't have even considered taking a job at the Melrose plant.

"Having time to take care of family makes it 100% better," said Nelson, 23, who has three young children.

Nelson works two 12-hour shifts and a five-hour shift on a rotating basis that often leaves her with six days off in a row. Her schedule complements that of her husband, who works full-time at the Melrose plant, in a way that wasn't possible with her previous job.

"I was getting ready to rip my hair out, I was so tired and on opposite schedules," Nelson said. "It just overall is so much better for everyone and I couldn't be more grateful and thankful."

Amid a wave of retirements and fewer workers available to take their place, attracting qualified employees remains the top concern for Minnesota manufacturers, according to last year's State of Manufacturing survey.

Last year the Manufacturing Institute convened a work group of employers, including Land O'Lakes, that are exploring flexibility. Recruiting women has been especially tough in rural areas where child care is harder to come by, the group found.

"Manufacturers that offer flexible schedules, however, can address these concerns and tap into a significant labor pool, bringing women back into the workforce," the institute reported.

The group also found some resistance among unions or workers unwilling to give up a full-time day shift — as opposed to evenings or overnights — which they may have earned through seniority.

"Younger employees, on the other hand, were pressing their union stewards to incorporate flexibility into their [contracts]," the report said.

Companies have offered compressed workweeks with long shifts; short blocks employees can sign up for; rotating schedules; on-demand labor, and job sharing, according to the trade group.

"I have these people who are available. They're just not available five days a week," Dewberry said. "How do I fit that with another group of people who aren't available five days a week?"

Land O'Lakes produces more than 300,000 pounds of cheese per day in Melrose, Minn., where some new hires were allowed to choose their own shift lengths and start times last year. Now more than 60 of its 140 production plants offer the flex-work benefit to some employees.

"We have about 4,000 front-line workers in our plants, and my aspiration is for them all to have some flexibility," Dewberry said.

Flexibility does create more administrative hassle, at least in the short-term, to ensure facilities are fully staffed. Dewberry said it's well worth the extra effort as retention improves.

"We have workers that want to work; how can we change the job to fit around them? That's the huge mental shift you have to make."