A Workforce Fit for Food Processing

The AgPlus Food Processing Workforce Summit on February 7th kicked off the 2017 Food Processing Expo in Sacramento, which is hosted every year by the California League of Food Processors (CLFP). The Expo is the largest food processing-related tradeshow in California, drawing a national audience. This first-ever workforce summit offered attendees a unique chance to talk about solving the big challenges of workforce skills gap the entire industry is facing.

Rob Neenan, the President and CEO of CLFP, provided opening remarks highlighting the workforce needs of food processing companies. He introduced Trish Kelly, Managing Director of Valley Vision’s workforce initiatives and food and agriculture portfolio, who facilitated the morning’s programming.

Trish provided an overview of the Central Valley AgPlus Food and Beverage Manufacturing Consortium which received a federal designation to support the 28-County Central Valley region as a food processing powerhouse. Creating a pipeline of skilled workers for this ever changing manufacturing sector is a high priority for AgPlus. She then presented findings from the Capital Region Workforce Action Plan for the food and ag and advanced manufacturing clusters, which have shared workforce needs. The region’s food and ag cluster currently generates a direct economic impact of $7.2 billion. Our goal is to grow this impact by capturing more value-added processing across the Central Valley.

Some of the key challenges facing food and beverage manufacturers are the aging of highly skilled workers, lack of relevant training programs in our region, the need for better awareness of the diversity of job and career opportunities in manufacturing, the need for more employer involvement, and increased non-traditional apprenticeships for students to gain real world job experience.

To better define priorities for the Workforce Summit, CLFP sent out a Workforce Survey to members, asking employers to identify their projected high need areas for current and future skills and types of workers, as well as interest in increased connections with education and training partners. Respondents were unified in the need to fill gaps in middle-skill positions such as technicians, maintenance and other types of mechanics and machine operators, as well as the recommendation that educational institutions offer technical programs that lead to industry-recognized certifications.

Two panels, one made up of employers and the other of educational representatives, focused on the recruiting, training, and retention of workers in food processing companies. Employer panel members represented Olam Spice Company, Jain Company, and Hilmar Cheese. In spite of different products and manufacturing techniques, several common themes emerged: the need for more skills building for both new and existing workers, more employer partnerships such as internships and apprenticeships, and career pathways that focus on K-12 and community colleges and not just 4-year universities.

The education and workforce panel included partners from the Community Colleges (Sequoia College and Los Rios), CSU Fresno Jordan School of Agriculture, and the Employment Training Panel. They saw another important thread in the need for better communication between employers and educational institution regarding the development of more relevant training programs, and communicating the value of those training programs to prospective students. John Dunn, Project Director of the California Advanced Manufacturing Apprenticeship Collaborative through Los Rios, summed up this panel’s thoughts:

The destination for high or middle schooler right now is “college” or “work.” They don’t see visible, identifiable career destinations. If we create apprenticeship programs that we can promote in this way, we can make a real impact.”

Following the panel sessions and audience discussion, two keynote speaker provided valuable insights in new state resources and initiatives that provide a great opportunity for addressing the challenges facing both employers and workers. Tim Rainey, Executive Director of the California Workforce Investment Board, explained how California’s community colleges and workforce boards are working together to prepare students for the workforce, ensure that employers can shape training programs to meet their needs, and provide for regional income mobility. He encouraged employers to take advantage of the many resources that the local workforce boards provide.

Matthew Roberts, Dean of Field Operations for the Workforce and Economic Development Division of the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office, talked about how regional economies depend greatly on their community colleges and asked the audience a compelling question related to skilled positions, “What is the quickest way to get people into these jobs?”

Matt described how the California Community Colleges (CCC) new Strong Workforce Program (SWP) is injecting significant funding into career technical education (CTE) programs across the state – to the tune of $200 million per year. The Chancellor’s Office wants students to identify a career that they want to pursue before making these other choices. With $200 million in SWP resources per year, the CCC is aiming to create a million middle skilled workers from “new and better” CTE programs.

Sandy Fiack with Zenith Insurance Co. moderated the afternoon programming, which included an update on statewide wage and hour regulations, best practices on worker’s compensation, and an update on Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requirements.

In closing, Trish and Sandy and our partners committed to continuing this valuable collaboration with CLFP to help create a 21st Century skilled workforce for our vibrant food processing industry.


To stay up-to-date with the activities of the AgPlus Consortium in the Sacramento region, subscribe to Valley Vision’s monthly Food for Thought e-newsletter. To follow Valley Vision’s workforce development work, subscribe to our flagship Vantage Point e-newsletter.


Trish Kelly is Senior Vice President of Valley Vision working in the food system, workforce, and broadband portfolios.

Adrian Rehn is a Valley Vision Project Associate working in the food system, broadband, and communications portfolios.

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