Wisconsin Food Industry Automation Changes Skills

 
Wisconsin Food Industry Automation Changes Skills

Few things embody Wisconsin as much as dairy and meat.

With a large agricultural base and heavy cheese and milk production in eastern Wisconsin, it should be no surprise the food manufacturing sector ranks third in the state for manufacturing employment behind metal fabrication and machinery. The average wages aren't bad either: The Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development reported an average annual wage of $44,507 in 2013.

The industry is still growing — albeit slower than metal fabrication — and the skills required for the jobs have changed. Increased automation and robotics in the processing and packaging of food materials means new hires in production are expected to be more attuned to maintenance of the machines and a focus on a more supervisory role — especially with looming retirements in some companies. A labor shortage in the industry may make it harder to fill those roles.

Bill Bartnik, director of manufacturing systems for Sargento, the state's biggest retail cheese producer, acknowledged an increasing investment in automation at the company but said the turnover in employment has been "pretty minimal," even during the recession. The company has gone to great lengths to ensure those who had a more labor-intensive role get the skills training to fit the transitioning needs of the company, Bartnik said.

"We talk about people that still stay in the same classification of jobs, but now instead of putting cheese on line, they're monitoring cheese coming off of multiple lines," Bartnik said. "Now they need to read computer screens or they'll be scanning something. They're in a little bit more of a monitoring role, but they're not really out of their comfort zone."

Sargento officials know, however, that the company could experience retirements in the next few years that will require a new wave of skilled workers.

Also, those going into the production side of food manufacturing need a specific skill set in sanitation, safety and quality control, DWD Acting Chief Economist Jeffrey Sachse said. That means not only knowing the FDA regulations for certain food production, but also keeping track of different food quality regulations for international markets if a company sends its product overseas.

"You could, in theory, take someone on the line at Kohler and take them to Sargento, but there'd still be have to be this added focus on sanitation and quality control," Sasche said. "It's so crucial to what these companies do."

Nick George, president of the Midwest Food Processors Association, acknowledged those skills are important and college-level work in food science, agribusiness or electromechanical areas can help someone move up in the industry. Members of his organization's human resources committee have struggled to find new hires for seasonal and full-time positions. Although companies have filled some seasonal positions through temps and migrant workers, George said they still end up falling short. He admits most plants aren't in a "sexy" location because they require proximity to agricultural resources.

"What we're looking for is a person who is happy living in a rural area and is happy doing a number of different types of jobs," George said. "We've found that has been hard to find."

Sargento hasn't found it as difficult, having a skill-based foothold not only in local technical colleges but also at Plymouth High School. Marilyn Morrisey, director of Human Resources at Sargento, said despite the specific skills needed for the production side of the company, they're always looking for high school graduates who might be a good fit and be able to move up through the ranks.

"From an all-around employee perspective, a lot of the traits we're looking for are broader: to get along with others, to fit the culture and to be self-motivated," Morrisey said. "That's really a big part of what we're looking for in terms of high school graduates."

Companies like Sargento aren't just looking for production employees. Those with a four-year degree and experience in marketing and logistics may find a higher-paying role in larger food production companies. For instance, the average annual wage for a logistician — someone responsible for analyzing and coordinating a company's supply chain — is $66,820.

Employment prospects are growing, but not any faster than manufacturing overall. Projections from DWD show that employment is expected to grow 3.3 percent from 2010-2020. Sachse said the industry is fairly comparable to other non-durable manufacturing sectors, as it is more subject to "seasonal fluctuations" given the products they're working with. It might be moving at a slower pace of growth than manufacturing as a whole, Sasche said, but it compares "equally or more favorably" to the paper industry.

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