Although the nation's unemployment rate bounced-up from 4 to 4.5 percent during the past year, it is still low by historical standards and skilled employees are hard to find. As reported by Food Engineering's annual Best Practices and State of Manufacturing surveys over the past two years, recruiting experienced or trainable people and then training them in required skills continues to be a major need for food-manufacturing firms.

Collaborative training programs can meet this need, said Pam Lund, president of the consulting firm Momenta, Inc. (Bellingham, Wash.), at Food Engineering's PLANTtech 2001 conference May 21 in Arlington Heights, IL. As director of the Learning Institute for the Northwest Food Processors Association, Lund pioneered NWFPA's LIMOS program which established skill standards for Laboratory Technician, Inspector/Sorter, Maintenance Technician, Operator and Sanitarian. Standards for Ammonia Refrigeration, Electrical and Electronic Technicians are currently being developed.

"You have a business plan, why not a strategic workforce plan?" asked Lund. To develop such a plan, she advised, clearly identify your training needs, expand training budgets, involve trade associations, develop a delivery system which fits your corporate culture, and create partnerships. Strategic alliances can include federal, state and local government agencies; community-based organizations; trade associations; unions; universities and community colleges; competitors; suppliers; and training providers.

One example: the training system currently being developed by The Eastern Washington Agriculture & Food Processing Partnership, which includes five community colleges, four workforce-development organizations, two unions, two trade associations, and one community-based organization plus additional state agencies. Purpose: to plug entry-level skill gaps with training in areas such as GMPs, job safety, food safety, SPC, problem-solving and consumer expectations, and to qualify people for advanced training in LIMOS skills to meet current and projected skill shortages. The project is funded with $750,000 from the U.S. Dept. of Labor, $565,000 from the state, and a matching $565,000 from the industry. Nineteen food manufacturers operating 28 plants in Eastern Washington forecast that 135 positions for skilled technicians will open over the next three years, Lund reported.