From The Editor | September 18, 2015

Food Industry Creates Technician Certification Program

John Kalkowski

By John Kalkowski, editor in chief, Food Online

Technician Certification Program

A major concern for the food industry is recruiting and keeping skilled technicians to maintain and operate the increasingly complex machinery that keeps their operations running. A large number of veteran, Baby Boomer technicians have retired or will do so soon. The industry simply has not been able to replace these mid-skill workers with new recruits who have the requisite mechanical and electronic training needed to operate and maintain sophisticated manufacturing equipment.

At this week’s Process Expo in Chicago, the Food Processing Education Consortium (FPEC) — 14 companies representing both end-users and original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) — announced the creation of the Food Industry Technicians Development Program (FIT), a national certification program for service technicians in all segments of the packaging, processing, and food and beverage manufacturing industry. In making the announcement, the consortium says there are currently 3.5 million unfilled middle-skill jobs in the U.S.

That is why the FPEC developed the FIT program to address the need for trained service technicians that food manufacturers can hire in the U.S. FIT is a two-year educational program, with a curriculum of core courses that meet the needs of the food and beverage industry. The courses will be available through the ITT Technical Institute, which has nearly 130 campuses nationwide. It will utilize a combination of new course and existing courses that ITT currently offers. Students will be able to graduate with the academic knowledge to meet the specific challenges that technicians experience in these industries. Initially, the program will be offered at campuses in Chicago and Kansas City, MO.

Many might ask, “What is a middle-skill job?” According to the FPEC, these are jobs that tend to be in technical areas, requiring education beyond high school, but not a four-year degree. These positions make up the largest part of the labor market in the country.

This type of work does not always have the greatest drawing power as a career. Effective technicians must have knowledge, experience, and manual dexterity. They also must be able to work with both machinery and customers, either in their company’s own manufacturing plant or at a distant customer facility.

The work also may be similar to other industries, so food companies face competition for competent workers. As an industry, food companies are asking for equipment to do much more, increasing the complexity of the machinery, says Gerald Lessard, VP and COO of West Liberty Foods. Training an entry-level technician can take 18 months or longer, driving up the cost of hiring and replacing technicians, and undermining the optimal performance of processing equipment.

Building Lifelong Careers

One of Lessard’s major concerns is that the company invests so much to develop a technician’s proficiency. After a few years, they may receive an opportunity outside the food industry. His goal is to make sure that the graduates know they are preparing for a lifelong career. With this education and experience, he says they should have significant opportunities to advance, either in a food processing plant or at a processing or packaging OEM.  

“The FPEC has been working very closely with leading food manufacturing companies in the U.S. to carefully develop a program that directly applies to the positions these companies need to hire,” says Scott Scriven, who is both chairman of the Foundation of the Food Processing Suppliers Association (FFPSA), and the FPEC, in addition to being VP of the Slicer Business Unit of Provisur Technologies.

Scriven says that technicians who receive the FIT certification will have excellent job opportunities in the U.S. food manufacturing industry that include high-end salaries and benefits. While making the announcement, he said the first graduates expected in 2017 are guaranteed positions in industry. The cost of the program is estimated to be about $20,000 per year, but many participating companies are offering scholarships and internships to defray those costs.

David Catalano, SVP of business development at ITT Educational Services, says as the program grows, ITT will expand its offering in other cities, hiring credentialed faculty from within the food and beverage industry. A national curriculum committee will review the program’s design to ensure it is meeting industry requirements.

 Another food company that helped to develop the program and which plans to aggressively hire its graduates is Tyson Foods. “Finding skilled service technicians in our industry has been a challenge, which will likely grow as these professionals retire in the next few years,” says Chip Burns, Tyson’s director of network optimization.

To learn more about the FIT Certification Program, visit foodindustrytechnician.com