N.Y. food industry leaders consider workforce challenges

Warren Brown
Warren Brown, director of the Program on Applied Demographics in the College of Human Ecology, speaks at “Meeting the Workforce Needs of the Food Processing Industry” June 22 in Syracuse.

Onondaga Community College on June 22 was the right place and the right time for New York’s booming food and beverage industry, as more than 130 participants from almost 100 institutions gathered to explore how to meet the workforce demands of an industry expected to expand 30 percent in the next decade.

Organized by Cornell Cooperative Extension’s Harvest NY program and the New York Association of Training and Employment Professionals (NYATEP), the daylong summit on “Meeting the Workforce Needs of the Food Processing Industry” drew industry giants such as Anheuser-Busch, Chobani and Mueller Quaker along with regional powerhouses including Byrne Dairy, Great Lakes Cheese and Steuben Foods. 

The summit was kicked off by State Agriculture and Markets Commissioner Richard Ball, who was joined by scores of regional development, state, federal and higher education participants.

Their collective charge, according to co-organizers Tristan Zuber from Harvest NY and NYATEP’s Executive Director Melinda Mack, is to find a way to meet the challenge of one of New York’s greatest economic success stories.

“Food is growing, and everywhere we go the employers and the businesses say they cannot find the skilled workers,” Mack said. “We’re ahead of the curve in thinking about this, the businesses are more primed to take a step and now they’re starting to say it’s time to do something.”

The second in a series of summits that began in 2014, this year’s expanded edition featured a series of panel presentations on key industrywide issues and smaller break-out sessions to help participants explore topics such as recruitment, apprenticeships and “employee soft skills” related to their needs.

That lineup included the presentation of a new analysis of food and beverage industry workforce data by Warren Brown, director of the Program on Applied Demographics in the College of Human Ecology and senior research associate at Cornell University’s Institute for Social and Economic Research. Drawing from state and federal data sources, Brown offered a detailed look at New York’s food and beverage industry and its workforce – from its rebound from the Great Recession to the challenges a decade of continued growth will present.

Among his findings:

  • The food and beverage manufacturing industry in New York, which hit heights of more than 62,000 employees in 2000, contracted along with the national economy to fewer than 55,000 workers by 2009.
  • Unlike all other manufacturing sectors in the state, New York’s food and beverage industry has bounced back. By 2014, average annual employment once again topped 60,000 – with more than 1 in 8 manufacturing jobs in the state now in the food and beverage industry.
  • Over the next seven years, by 2022, the New York State Department of Labor expects New York’s food and beverage industry to expand by another 4,500 jobs – to a record high of 65,000 employees.
  • The current food and beverage industry workforce in the state is increasingly diverse, with a higher percentage of women, African-American and Hispanic workers than the rest of the manufacturing sector.
  • The food and beverage industry also has a younger workforce, with a much higher percentage of new hires on the job (defined as hires who have not worked in the industry for the previous years), meaning the challenges of training and workforce development are greater.

And that challenge will intensify in the year ahead as the food and beverage industry’s stable workforce ages and its employment participation declines.

“The workforce training needs of the food industry in New York represent a complex and timely issue that is best addressed by pulling the resources available from all the relevant organizations and stakeholders,” said summit participant and Department of Food Science chair Olga Padilla-Zakour. “The summit is a clear example of how the coordination of efforts is creating a variety of strategies to implement workable solutions. Cornell’s leadership role demonstrates our commitment to support the food industry as part of our land-grant mission."

Zuber, whose Harvest NY is expanding from three to six specialists in the field thanks to increased support from state lawmakers, and Mack said they will continue their direct work with industry leaders on this issue and hope to bring them together for a third summit in 2016. In additional to Harvest NY and NYATEP, cosponsors of the 2015 summit included Cornell Cooperative Extension, Onondaga Community College and the Workforce Development Institute.

John Carberry is managing editor of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. 

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