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Panel Looks At How Industry, Academia Can Ensure Adequately Skilled Dairy Workforce

Reno, NV—“We have a crisis in our industry. That crisis is a labor crisis. It’s difficult to find people,” according to Eric Bastian of United Dairymen of Idaho/Glanbia Nutritionals.

Bastian moderated a panel at last month’s Global Cheese Technology Forum that looked at training, education and workforce development in the cheese and dairy industries.

Particularly in the western part of the US, “we’ve had a decrease in our pipeline that has hurt us over the last few years,” Bastian said.

Bastian took a poll of the companies that exist within his region — which includes Utah, Nevada, Idaho, Oregon and Washington — and they told him that, in total, they need about 75 masters students and maybe three times that many undergraduate students, and that they really love to have some dairy technology or training in their skill set.

“That doesn’t exist” for the dairy industry, Bastian said.

Mark Wustenberg, a veterinarian who was formerly the vice president of quality and member services for Tillamook County Creamery Association, listed several realities of today’s workplace, starting with more competition from other sectors, not just within the food industry, for the skilled labor pool, as well as the unskilled labor force.

Other workplace realities, Wustenberg continued, include the continued, accelerated use of technology; changing consumer, customer and market expectations;rising demand for more “tech” savvy skill sets; the increased importance of social and analytical skills; and the increasingly expensive cost of education.

So what should academia and private industry focus on together to ensure an adequately staffed and skilled workforce? One thing that’s interesting to Wustenberg is increasing the awareness of the available opportunities.

Figuring out how to attract people into direct programs such as food science or agricultural programs at an early stage so that they begin to understand the opportunities there is something that Wustenberg doesn’t think folks in an academic environment can do all by themselves or as effectively by themselves; “there’s a part that industry needs to play in that.”

Also, if a company is asking students to go through an academic program and potentially come out with five-figure or even six-figure debt, Wustenberg thinks there’s some responsibility to structure jobs so that they’re sustainable, “and that starts with things like compensation.” You can’t expect people to come out of an academic situation where they’ve incurred debt and then not have them be able to address their financial situation.

Establishing the National Dairy Foods Research Program and the six Dairy Foods Research Centers in the mid-1980s “was a brilliant idea,” according to Bill Graves, senior vice president-product research and food safety, National Dairy Council.

Objectives of that program when it was established, Graves noted, included conducting research to increase the use of and demand for dairy products; translating research into application opportunities; providing education, training and technical support to the dairy industry; and sustaining dairy expertise and infrastructure. And those objectives remain true today.

It’s been through partnership investment in the dairy centers that’s lead to industry innovation and growth, Graves said. But the dairy centers have also led to a “pipeline” of industry leaders; it’s not just about the research and innovation.

There’s a lot that goes into creating a successful pipeline, Graves said, including assistantships, internships, scholarships and competitions, among others.

He listed six “guiding principles” for creating a successful pipeline, including:
• Raising awareness to attract talent,

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