Dick Groves
Editor, Cheese Reporter

 

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The Dairy Industry’s Tremendous Career Opportunities

It’s graduation time for millions of high school and college students across the US, and many of these soon-to-be-former students are undoubtedly scratching their heads and wondering what’s next.

Here’s an idea: check out a career in the food and agriculture industry. And more specifically, check out a career in the dairy industry.

Let’s face it, the food and agriculture business isn’t likely to be regarded as very “cutting edge” for most of today’s graduates. After all, the business of food and agriculture has been around for centuries. It’s sort of based on a lot of “old” technology, such as planting, milking, harvesting, processing, distributing, importing, exporting, etc., etc.

Perhaps this is why, according to a new USDA report that was covered in a story that ran on our front page last week, an average of 35,400 new US college graduates with expertise in food, agriculture, renewable natural resources, or the environment are expected to fill just 61 percent of the expected 57,900 average annual job openings over the next five years.

And that’s just college grads. Businesses ranging from farms to processing plants to distributors and retailers also employ hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people who don’t have a college degree but who are nonetheless essential in the food supply chain.

So, why would new graduates want to choose a career in the dairy industry? For one thing, it’s an industry that’s growing, and growing fairly impressively.

This point can be illustrated, and contrasted with some previous eras, just by looking at some recent production figures. Specifically, from 2004 to 2014, US milk production grew by an impressive 35.2 billion pounds, from 170.8 billion pounds in 2004 to 206.0 billion pounds in 2014. And milk production has grown by more than 58 billion pounds since 1990.

Rising milk production hasn’t always been guaranteed in the US dairy industry. Just to cite one example: during the 1960s, US milk production actually declined, from 123.1 billion pounds in 1960 to 116.1 billion pounds in 1969.

For another thing, the dairy industry is a pretty dynamic, exciting business these days. As we reported two weeks ago, Wisconsin’s specialty cheese production reached a record 660 million pounds last year, and specialty cheeses now account for almost one-quarter of the state’s total cheese production. Back in 1993,
Wisconsin’s specialty cheese production totaled 83.1 million pounds, and accounted for just 4.1 percent of the state’s total cheese output.

The growing diversity of the US cheese business can also be seen in the growth in the number of categories in cheese contests, such as the recent United States Championship Cheese Contest, as well as the American Cheese Society’s annual contest (neither of which existed in the 1960s, or in the 1970s, for that matter).

Oh, and the number of cheese plants in the US has grown from 402 in 2000 to 536 last year, the most US cheese plants since 1989.

That’s just one segment of the dairy business. Arguably the most dynamic segment of the dairy industry in recent years has been the yogurt category in general and Greek yogurt in particular.

A decade ago, Greek yogurt was almost unheard of, except in Greece, but today Greek yogurt is of growing importance in a yogurt category that has seen production rise by over 2 billion pounds since 2004.

Even the steady-to-slowly-declining fluid milk business is becoming more dynamic these days, thanks to, among other things, products such as fairlife and Core Power.

One other interesting point about job opportunities in the dairy industry concerns the number of industry leaders and participants who have recently retired or are getting close to retirement. The broader issue here is that baby boomers are getting older and will continue to exit the industry in the years ahead. The baby boom generation was born between 1946 and 1964, meaning that boomers are now anywhere from 50 to 69 years of age.

That means there will be a lot more retirements over the next decade and a half in the dairy industry. And considering how much the industry is expected to grow in the years ahead (milk production could grow by another 30-35 billion pounds over the next decade), it’s easy to see how there will be more than a few jobs available in the dairy business in the years ahead.

So how can the dairy industry make sure today’s students understand the career opportunities available in the future? For one thing, it can continue to provide scholarships to deserving students who are interested in pursuing careers in the industry. The industry has done a great job of funding scholarships in recent years, but more will need to be done in the future as job opportunities grow and the cost of attending college continues to rise.

The dairy industry should also continue to support the annual Collegiate Dairy Products Evaluation Contest, which, among many other benefits, helps students recognize the dairy industry as a potential career opportunity.

Finally, the dairy industry should continue to innovate. Any shopper who’s looked around a supermarket dairy case or deli counter knows about the growing array of innovative products the dairy industry has been developing in recent years. The more diverse and innovative the industry’s product offerings are, the more likely the industry is to attract younger job-seekers.

The dairy industry will have plenty of job openings in the future. Let’s hope it has an adequate number of people interested in filling those openings.


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