Appetite for staff stresses foods sector |

Appetite for staff stresses foods sector

Rob Sabo

Ole´ Mexican Foods’ announcement about 10 days ago that it’s building a tortilla production facility in Stead that initially will employ about 150 is another sign of the growing strength of the food-manufacturing industry in northern Nevada.

But some food company executives worry that a lack of skilled food production workers could hamper the industry’s growth.

Ole´ joins the region’s ranks of large food makers such as SK Food Group, Ralston Foods, NOW Foods, Pacific Cheese and French Gourmet, as well as a handful of smaller food processors or manufacturers. Food manufacturing accounts for about 12 to 13 percent of the approximately 40,000 manufacturing jobs in Nevada, says Ray Bacon, executive director of the Nevada Manufacturers Association, and the jobs are fairly evenly split between southern and northern Nevada.

Although the addition of a large company such as Olé Mexican Foods, which expects to employ more than 350 once it’s in full production, pressures an already limited workforce, Bacon says that the majority of jobs in food production are handled by relatively unskilled workers.

“If you take a look at SK Foods, yes they need some pretty skilled folks, but the pretty skilled folks are a fairly limited number,” Bacon says. “The vast majority can learn on the job relatively quickly. Tortilla factories are not terribly complex, so there will not be any super requirements for employee training. There will be for the management team, the raw materials processing team and quality supervision staff, but someone who walks through the door can be trained to do those jobs in a few weeks.”

Bacon says that’s not true at Sparks healthy foods maker NOW Foods, where the majority of positions require complex training. NOW Foods has had to recruit out-of-state food production workers to fill new positions as it expands operations, Bacon says. The same can be said for Hidden Valley Food Products on Moya Boulevard in Stead and Ralston Foods on East Greg Street — food-manufacturing processes are highly automated and require trained machine operators and similarly skilled positions.

Food manufacturing companies continue to choose Reno for their operations for a host of reasons, says Stan Thomas, executive vice president of marketing and competitive expansion for the Economic Development Authority of Western Nevada. Some companies, such as Olé, were restricted in growth opportunities by California’s onerous taxes and high operating costs. Others find it much easier to get their operations up and running quickly in Nevada than other western states.

“It is fairly easy for them to get permitted and move their companies here,” Thomas says. “There has been a movement of all manufacturers here to northern Nevada.”

But it isn’t always a perfect marriage.

Patrick Novak, founder and chief executive officer of French Gourmet, says relocating from Oahu to Nevada in 2012 provided his company with many positive benefits that impact the bottom line, including reduced manufacturing and operating costs and low-cost real estate. Those factors, Novak says, keep French Gourmet competitive and allow it to grow because Novak can offer customers better prices and still retain profit.

But French Gourmet has struggled with workforce issues since relocating to a 78,000-square-foot industrial building on Coney Island Drive. The company specializes in providing premium frozen dough that’s used to bake croissants, puff pastries, muffins and the like and employs 55 — but building a long-lasting team that’s trained in the company’s intricate manufacturing techniques has been difficult and costly.

“We have had a tremendous amount of problems employing people,” Novak says. “Reno is a transient population; people come and go. They are here for six months or a year and get training, and the next thing you know they have left. It has been very costly and detrimental — you invest in training and then you lose it all.”

Novak worries that adding more large food manufacturers such as Ole´ Mexican Foods will exacerbate workforce problems. The pool of available labor that’s trained in the intricacies of food production is woefully small, executive at food manufacturing firms have said.

“We are going to compete for the same type of people who are in the food industry, which is a specialized skill,” Novak says. “Now we are going to compete for quality. It could be detrimental if there is not enough of them, and the people that you get you have to really, really take care of them.”

Truckee Meadows Community College this fall created a new degree path in food processing to help train students to for mid-level and supervisory positions in the regional food industry. The associate of applied science degree requires just over 60 credits and can be completed in four semesters.

Jim New, dean of the IGT Applied Technology Center, says it’s hard to pinpoint an exact number of students pursuing the new degree because classes were blended from TMCC’s culinary and dietetic programs. The degree provides important opportunities for students interested in food manufacturing jobs, New says, as well as for current workers to receive additional training that can lead to career advancement.

“We don’t have a critical mass of established workers here in that field, and a company that is coming to us can’t simply go to the workforce pool — they are not there. It is critical that we have those kinds of programs to establish that labor pool.”