HELP WANTED: Skilled Plant Workers

March 24, 2003
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The technology of automation is putting a premium on plant employees, but precise training can create masters of the machines.



From a plant staffing perspective, the 21st Century's first economic slump is the good news. The bad news is that manufacturing activity is beginning to revive, and the staffing shortages of the go-go '90s are about to come back with a vengeance.

Recession has been a godsend for staff-strapped processors. An estimated 1.7 million U.S. manufacturing jobs were lost in the last two years, and many of those workers migrated to food and beverage facilities. But unless employers have a program to groom employees with the potential for skill-enhancement training and to upgrade the automation skills of older employees, those employers will soon find themselves in "a bidding war just to maintain minimal customer-service levels," predicts Roger E. Herman, a Greensboro, N.C.-based management consultant.

"A lot of employers have become complacent the last couple of years, with more people looking for work than there are jobs to be filled," observes Herman, author of several books on attracting and retaining skilled employees. "But things are changing, and employees will be back in the driver's seat soon." He cites a U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics report that projects a 10 million-person gap by 2010 between jobs to be filled and qualified people to fill them.

Baking trainees gain hands-on experience with sheeting equipment and other components in a bread line at AIB's pilot plant in Manhattan, Kanas. Source: Martin Puntney, AIB.

Four years ago, the bakery engineers' association predicted 20,000 new wholesale bakers would have to be recruited and trained by 2006, and those workers will have to be more skilled than the last generation of bakers. Simply throwing money and other resources at workforce training won't resolve industry labor shortages. That is neither an affordable option or a blueprint for success for worker retention, given the demand for skilled workers in other industries. But progressive employers are making workforce training a centerpiece of strategies designed to keep their facilities adequately staffed with workers who are familiar with technologies that are being introduced into food processing.

The American Institute of Baking (AIB) in Manhattan, Kan., has emerged as a premier provider of workforce training for the food industry, expanding far beyond its historical focus on the baking segment. Workshops and courses ranging from two days to 10 weeks address areas such as refrigeration technology, electrical troubleshooting, maintenance and food safety and security. A score of trainers provide standardized and customized training in an increasingly diverse assortment of skills, according to Kirk O'Donnell, vice president-education at AIB. "If you're going to do it right, you involve both line operators and supervisors in skill enhancement," he says.

Economic conditions have put downward pressure on corporate training budgets. Spending at 270 corporations participating in the American Society for Training and Development's (ASTD) State of the Industry Report slipped to 1.9 percent of payrolls, reversing a four-year trend toward increased spending. Among "training investment leaders"—firms identified as the most committed to training initiatives—expenditures as a percent of payroll spiked to 3.6 percent, up from 3.2 percent. Those leaders are shifting their spending priorities away from administrative employees and toward front-line supervisors and senior managers. They also are making greater use of community colleges and four-year universities than mainstream companies.

Instruction on laptops is at least as important as the fundamentals of power mechanics for today's plant operators and supervisors. Source: Martin Puntney, AIB.

The Northwest model

As companies with limited training budgets try to develop workforces with higher technological skills, they are looking more closely at adapting existing resources to meet food processors' needs. One of the most ambitious projects is the Eastern Washington Agriculture and Food Processing Partnership, a unique public-private workforce training effort spearheaded by the Northwestern Food Processors Association (NWFPA). Over the last decade, NWFPA and other partnership participants have invested $7 million to identify skill gaps in the labor force, select the best candidates for skill enhancement and develop an instructional network to deliver that training, according to Pam Lund, an official with the state of Washington's Workforce Training and Coordination Board and former director of the NWFPA initiative.

Almost half of those funds were expended in the Partnership program over the last two years. Training for 1,000 food industry employees in 26 customized courses was delivered at a cost of less than half that of traditional training courses, says Lund. Workers have been certified as ammonia refrigeration technicians, maintenance mechanics, PLC technicians and in other job categories identified as high-demand positions by 19 food companies.

"We cannot afford to send our employees to remote locations for traditional classroom training for weeks or months, so we brought the trainers to the workers, rather than have the workers go to the training center," explains Tom Martinez, human resources director for J.R. Simplot Co.'s Food Group in Boise, Idaho. "We encouraged the development of two-and three-day sessions in which employees could receive specific training that they could then apply immediately at work. Later, they receive additional two-or three-day training sessions on other aspects of the job."

Classroom instruction is an essential adjunct to hands-on training in the curricula at the American Institute of Baking. Source: Martin Puntney, AIB.

Martinez is responsible for staffing eight potato processing plants in eastern Washington, Idaho and Oregon. He became involved in the Partnership while employed by Nestle, which sold its potato division to Simplot in 2000. As a member of the Partnership's steering committee, Martinez has seen the program grow from basic literacy training to a complex interrelationship between processors, public and private trainers, labor leaders and government agencies. It has been hailed as a national model for collaborative training. The U.S. Department of Labor recently honored the Partnership with its 2002 Pyramid Award for workforce initiatives.

There is no shortage of trainers in the United States, but delivering specific training in convenient locations required years of dialogue and negotiation. For example, Wanatchee Valley (Idaho) Community College offered a refrigeration curriculum that had to be modified to meet the industrial needs of food companies like Simplot, Lamb-Weston and other partnership members. Likewise, the Perry Technical Institute in Yakima, Wash., is one of only two private institutions with an instrumentation program to develop experts in distributed controls, but its campus is hundreds of miles from any of the Partnership's 28 food plants. Both the institute and the college customized their coursework to fit the processors' job-skill needs and devised mobile training facilities that could bring the programs to the plants.

"The concepts of refrigeration are the same at all these facilities. Bringing the trainers to the plants allows employees to go home at night and eliminates the cost of motel stays," Martinez says. "Getting people to think outside the traditional approach to training was a challenge, but it's made both companies and workers more comfortable and confident in workers' ability to perform these tasks. It's also a morale builder and an employee retention tool."

Skill standards have been developed for lab technicians, QA inspectors, sanitation workers and electronics technicians. Certification by organizations such as the Refrigerating Engineers & Technicians Association makes workers more marketable if they decide to switch employers. A survey of food processors in the Partnership determined there are 93 positions for refrigeration technicians at their plants, with 26 more positions expected to be created in the next three years.

Whether the NWFPA model can be exported to other regions remains to be seen. A less ambitious approach to food-worker training was suggested by the Winchester-Frederick County (Va.) Economic Development Commission, "but nobody really got excited," according to Gary Andrews, industry coordinator for the Winchester, Va.-based commission. The county is home to approximately 3,500 food processing jobs. Kraft Foods, New World Pasta, Rich Foods and HP Hood account for many of those food jobs, "but about the only thing they have in common is that their products are eaten," says Andrews. "One training issue they're all interested in is sanitation, so hopefully down the road we'll be able to put together some kind of program in that area."

Students at the Perry Technical Institute are in demand because of their instruction in PLCs, hydraulics and instrumentation. The institute has responded to food industry needs with mobile instruction via the Skill Training for Incumbent Workers Program. Source: Perry Technical Institute

Industry-specific training for the region's plastics companies is more advanced. Two customized classes on plastics processing and technology were created at Lord Fairfax Community College in Middletown, Va., to provide introductory and advanced training. According to O. Douglas Cumbia II, the college's coordinator of business and industry training, many students go on to take classes in refrigeration and maintenance.

Students pay in-district tuition regardless of where they live, and the likelihood that they live outside the county is increasing. When the Kraft plant created 75 new jobs as part of a recent $29 million expansion, job fairs were staged in Maryland and West Virginia to find qualified candidates. Similarly wide nets have been cast by other food manufacturers, including HP Hood, whose ESL dairy facility in Winchester has expanded twice since opening two years ago and now employs more than 300.

Delivering specialized training to personnel and plants scattered over wide geographic areas is an argument against brick-and-mortar training delivery. Off-site instruction is expensive for employers and a hardship for employees, Simplot's Martinez notes. Teleconferencing, interactive TV and other alternative delivery mechanisms are growing fast, the ASTD report found, particularly among training investment leaders. By next year, all of those companies expect to be using multimedia presentation modes.

Students in a maintenance engineering course receive classroom instruction at the American Institute of Baking. As an alternative to the 10 week program, AIB is increasing the number of two- and three-day seminars at locations across the country. Source: Martin Puntney, AIB.

Online outlook

"The food industry hasn't embraced online training tools, but down the road, it's going to grow," predicts AIB's O'Donnell. "If it's integrated into a program that includes traditional approaches to training, it can be a useful tool."

AIB presents about 200 3- to 5-day seminars each year. If preparatory instruction could be conducted online beforehand and then "combined with some mentoring afterward," participants could "hit the ground running" and shave a day or two off their time away from the job, he says.

Employers often view training as a Damoclean sword: a skilled workforce is an asset, but well-trained workers can easily leave for greener pastures. In fact, reports Lund, the food processors in the NWFPA alliance often joke about hiring away maintenance and electronics technicians from each other. But expanding the pool of skilled workers is critical for all of them. Having created an infrastructure that addresses that need, they can turn their attention to identifying the best candidates for future training and devise career paths to keep them in the fold.

Sustaining and expanding the NWFPA's training program will be an ongoing challenge: the typical age of refrigeration trainees is over 40, and the pool of skilled workers must constantly be replenished. But those companies and organizations have established a model for workforce education that can help them sustain and even expand their operations in the years ahead.

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