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TMCC training helps build foods workforce

Rob Sabo
rsabo@nnbw.biz

Steve Sposari, president of SK Food Group, has seen his Sparks sandwich-making production facility grow to 480 employees since it opened an 85,000-square-foot facility in 2007.

Sposari expects the growth curve to continue — SK Food Group expanded to 150,000 square feet in 2010 — but as the company grows locally it’s been hard-pressed by a shortage of highly trained employees to work in quality assurance, food technology for research and development, and engineering to work on sensitive food-processing equipment.

A new food processing technology degree offered this fall at Truckee Meadows Community College seeks to address those gaps in the regional workforce — and could eventually serve as a driving force for food-related companies to relocate to northern Nevada.

“As happy as we are being in Reno, one thing that is lacking is knowledgeable people in the food manufacturing industry,” Sposari said last week from SK Food Group’s headquarters at Seattle. “(Reno-Sparks) is developing as an area for food manufacturing, but right now the knowledge is not there. For any kind of specialty food-related position we usually need to recruit outside of the area.”

Food manufacturing companies such as SK Food Group, Pacific Cheese, Ralcorp Food Group, Damon Foods and SunOpta Healthy Snacks of Carson City gathered earlier this year to give TMCC executives clearer insight into the core curriculum of the new degree program to better shape employees in supervisory and managerial positions, says Jim New, dean of applied industrial technology at TMCC.

Many of the courses in the new manufacturing technologies degree with an emphasis on food processing already are offered at TMCC as part of the school’s existing culinary and nutrition program, New says. The decision to add some additional courses and offer an associates degree was based on queries from regional food manufacturing executives seeking opportunities for a local outlet to provide training for key employees.

The associate of applied science degree requires just over 60 credits, which can be completed in four semesters for a full-time student. Existing faculty will teach the courses, New says.

“We have been approached on a few different occasions by representatives of the manufacturing industry to start a food manufacturing program to support the emerging industry here in northern Nevada,” he says.

And having a local means to strengthen the skill sets of mid-level managers and supervisors better positions northern Nevada for growth in food manufacturing, says Ray Bacon, executive director of the Nevada Manufacturers Association.

There is a growing perception among food manufacturers located in neighboring California that Nevada could be a better place to do business, Bacon notes. Operations such as large bakeries, salad dressing plants and a host of others could benefit from the state’s favorable tax structure and strong network of logistics providers.

“We have market opportunity,” Bacon says.

However, increasing the skills of the regional food-based workforce is key to drawing new companies to the state. Currently, Bacon says, only about 15 to 20 universities throughout the United States offer a comprehensive food manufacturing program.

The new degree at TMCC will train mid-level workers in need of increased technical expertise to work in quality control, inspection, plant operations, incoming or receiving operations or processing line supervision for the 50 to 60 food manufacturers in Nevada, Bacon says.

“We are looking at this program to be something that will be supplying food manufacturers throughout the state.”

SK Food Group says it’s currently seeking production supervisors and qualified quality assurance personnel, as well as plant engineers that can fix and maintain sensitive food-processing production equipment. Roughly 50 people work in supervisory roles at the company’s facility in Sparks.

Having access to a more highly trained workforce better positions SK Food Group to meet growth demand in coming years, Sposari says.

“The heart of any company is its people, and the ability to draft good, qualified people will be extremely beneficial to SK Food Group. We are pleased that those types of course will be offered locally, and we will do whatever we can to support individuals coming out of those classes to be a part of the SK Food Group workforce.”

Dan Kibbe, vice president and director of plant operations at the Ralcorp Food Group cereal plant in east Sparks, agrees that a local curriculum focusing on food safety and quality conditions will benefit the company’s team leaders, coaches and supervisors — as well as for future graduates of the program who aspire to leadership positions within the food manufacturing industry. Currently, Ralcorp plant workers are sent out of town for advanced training in food processing and manufacturing principles. The plant employs roughly 170 people who turn out more than five million cases of cereal each year.

The new program will be evaluated throughout the first few years to ensure it meets the demand of regional food manufacturers, New says. Currently, the focus is on topics such as sanitation for long-term food storage, food science, food biology and food chemistry, industrial manufacturing, industrial safety and quality control.

“As this is a new program, we will be evaluating it in its first year or two to make sure we are meeting the needs of the food manufacturers,” New says. “As they prove us with input, we will make modifications as necessary.”