Growing foods sector needs qualified workers

Olé Mexican Foods’ recent announcement that it’s building a tortilla-production facility in Stead that initially will employ about 150 is another sign of the growing strength of Northern Nevada’s food-manufacturing industry.

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

Olé 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 percent of the approximately 40,000 manufacturing jobs in Nevada, said Ray Bacon, executive director of the Nevada Manufacturers Association. The jobs are fairly evenly split between Southern and Northern Nevada.

Although the addition of a large company such as Olé, which expects to employ more than 350 once it’s in full production, stresses 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,” he said. “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.”

Food-manufacturing companies continue to choose this region for their operations for a host of reasons, said 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 in other Western states.

But it isn’t always a perfect marriage.

Patrick Novak, founder and chief executive officer of French Gourmet, said relocating from Oahu to Nevada in 2012 provided his company with many positive benefits that affect the bottom line, including reduced manufacturing and operating costs and low-cost real estate. Those factors, Novak said, 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 work force issues since relocating to a 78,000-square-foot industrial building in Reno. 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 said. “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.”

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 opportunities for students interested in food-manufacturing jobs, New said, 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 work force pool; they are not there,” he said. “It is critical that we have those kinds of programs to establish that labor pool.”


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