Guest Columns

Dairy Research

Developing and supporting today’s dairy workforce

John Lucey

John Lucey, director of the Center for Dairy Research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, contributes this column for Cheese Market News®.

We constantly hear from our partners in the dairy industry that there isn’t enough trained staff. It’s no secret that one of the biggest challenges facing the industry today is its workforce. How can we attract and retain employees? How can we better train current employees? How can we provide a career path and ensure our employees are progressing? How can we capture some of the knowledge of our retirees?

These are huge concerns not only for our industry but also for the state of Wisconsin. According to a new report from Steven Deller, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor in the Department of Agriculture & Applied Economics, in Wisconsin the dairy processing sector employs more than 108,000 people. It’s a sizable chunk of the state’s overall workforce, and it’s growing. The health of the dairy industry is closely tied to the economic health of the state.

In this column, I want to highlight some of the challenges facing the industry’s workforce, talk about some of the training and education work here at the Center for Dairy Research (CDR), and close out with some of my ideas and thoughts.

•Workforce challenges

The dairy industry is experiencing a large number of retirements. The “baby boomers,” who make up 29% of the U.S. population, are reaching retirement age. In the dairy industry, we are seeing retirements from plant managers, Master Cheesemakers, quality control supervisors and many other types of positions. These are valuable employees who have a lot of experience and technical knowledge. How do we replace them?

The dairy industry also is changing. In the past, many employees got their start working at smaller dairy plants where they worked hands-on with cheese. If you talk to Master Cheesemakers, a lot of them got their start at the local (family) cheese plant when they were in high school (or even younger). Today, we have less of these small plants where people can get exposed early to a career in dairy.

We also are seeing dairy plants become more automated, which isn’t conducive to learning the basics of cheesemaking. Some of these larger plants are essentially closed systems where employees are pushing buttons to make cheese. In this scenario, employees are less likely to understand the “whys” of the cheesemaking process. They may not have learned what causes certain problems or defects, much less how to correct them.

“With large plants, employees tend to get placed in one specific part of the operation,” says Dean Sommer, CDR cheese technologist. “Since they’re in one area, they don’t understand what’s going on downstream or upstream of where they’re working. They may never get the chance to really see and evaluate the finished product. They don’t see the big picture.”

• Training needed

Our staff, like Dean, are continually going out into the field and visiting plants. As a result, we see firsthand some of the issues that plants are dealing with. From our perspective, here are some of the key technical skills that many employees could use some help (training) with:

1. Basics of cheese manufacture. From milk composition to grading the finished product.

2. Knowledge of why you do what you do at various steps in the process.

3. Basics of Good Manufacturing Practices.

4. Basics of sanitation and food safety practices.

5. A better understanding of processing equipment and their operation, equipment maintenance, etc.

We also need to think about our more experienced employees. How do we ensure that we are providing them with an attractive career path and an opportunity to move up the ladder? For a lot of workers, their job isn’t just a paycheck, they want opportunities to learn more and have a greater impact on the success of the company.

• CDR/partner work

At CDR, we offer a wide range of dairy short courses covering everything from beverages to food safety and cheesemaking technology. We’re very proud of our short courses and are continually looking to expand or improve the courses. For instance, we are planning on re-organizing our classes into a tiered approach. We will identify existing courses or create new courses that are geared toward employees who are at the beginner, middle or advanced skill levels in their careers. This approach will provide foundational knowledge to employees who are at the initial stages of their dairy career, while the advanced classes will help Master Cheesemakers and experienced operators continue to grow their dairy know-how. Other schools, like Cornell University, offer dairy courses at various levels (e.g., basic and advanced), where attendees also can obtain a certificate in a specific program area by taking several courses, as well as gaining continuing education credits.

We also are looking at complementing our in-person short courses with online or blended courses. We recognize that online courses have their limits. Aspects like cheesemaking and product grading require hands-on activities. For instance, our Certificate in Dairy Processing training program is a “blended course.” The training program kicks off with one day of in-person seminars/labs at CDR and then the rest of the 10-week course takes place online. We are looking at offering more courses, or training programs, in a similar online capacity. We are exploring new technologies to reach more people and facilitate greater learning.

Our quarterly publication, the Dairy Pipeline, provides cheesemakers and others in the industry access to research and practical, real-world solutions to challenges seen in the industry. Recent topics include controlling yeast and mold growth in cheese, the role of pH in cheesemaking, the benefits of microfiltration and much more.

The renovation and expansion of Babcock Hall also will help us improve our training and education opportunities. Among other things, we will have a new auditorium solely dedicated to supporting our short courses, as well as improved training spaces in the dairy plant. We recognize that industry training is not going away; needs continue to grow and evolve.

We’ve been working closely with the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association’s (WCMA) Education Committee and creating new opportunities like “preparation courses” for those wanting to take the Wisconsin cheesemakers license exam. These preparation courses were offered this fall at three locations around Wisconsin. This course was started due to requests from companies to get more of their staff licensed (recognizing that there were upcoming retirements of their current cheesemakers). We are considering an online option for this course in the future.

WCMA also sees education and training as a primary goal of the organization. They provide business/leadership training opportunities to cheesemakers, frontline supervisor training and a host of other opportunities.

“Dairy processing will always require a skilled workforce,” says John Umhoefer, WCMA executive director.

“Investments in employee education are essential to maintain productivity, safety, and positive morale — not to mention the U.S. dairy industry’s competitive edge in a global marketplace.”

• A couple thoughts

As I mentioned, there are a lot of people who are retiring (or recently retired) from the dairy industry. When these people leave, we lose a lot of knowledge and technical expertise. I think our industry would benefit from the creation of a mentoring program. It would allow those who are retiring, or near the end of their career, to pass on their knowledge to the next generation. We currently require people enrolled in our Master Cheesemaker program to have a mentor and many of our graduates cite their mentors as one of the main reasons for their success.

We also could consider creating a “dairy school.” Some European countries, like France, Switzerland, and Holland, have training programs where students receive immersive, hands-on training in the basics of dairy processing and the manufacturing of various types of dairy products. These students would come into the workforce with significant dairy knowledge and technical skills.

I would like to hear what others think we should do to train the next generation of our workforce. To achieve better trained/skilled workers, all of us — industry, academia and our professional associations — need to work together. We need to invest (money and time) in our employees if we want to have a skilled and motivated workforce. As an educator, I know that you can never receive enough training — there is always something new to learn, especially when working with complex products like milk and cheese.


The views expressed by CMN’s guest columnists are their own opinions and do not necessarily reflect those of Cheese Market News®.

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