Fairy Tales Can Come True
James Dudlicek
(847) 405-4009
What if the Little Red Hen ran a dairy? I was reading my 16-month-old daughter the classic children’s tale — you know, the one where the hen has to do all the production and pro­cessing work on a loaf of bread while her fellow barnyard residents sit idly by, until it comes time to consume the finished product and Red tells them all to get lost when they come running for a taste.
It put me in mind of what I’ve been hearing from several dairy executives over the past year, most recently from Roger Capps at Prairie Farms, the focus of this month’s cover story.
These management folks say it’s getting harder to attract and retain a skilled work force. Apparently fewer people are willing to commit the time and effort demanded by dairy processing, which can go on around the clock as well as weekends and holidays.
And there’s data to back them up. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, total employment in food manufacturing will rise 4.7 percent by 2012 from a level of about 1.5 million in 2002. For dairy, which employed nearly 137,000 people three years ago, employment rolls are expected to fall 9.3 percent in the next seven years.
That’s the largest percent drop among the food sectors expected to lose workers, followed by seafood, sugar/confectionary, produce and grain. Meanwhile, animal slaughtering — which employed 520,000 in 2002 — is expected to swell its ranks by more than 15 percent.
Are people somehow finding more job satisfaction on the kill floor? Dairy manufacturers pay production workers an average of $639 a week or $15.83 per hour — well above meat’s $442 and $10.91, which hangs below the food industry averages of $497 and $12.54. You can paint your own mental picture about the difference in working environments.
Consolidation, of course, has impacted employment and likely will continue to do so. But that can’t be the whole story, otherwise Capps and others wouldn’t see it as an issue.
As dairy works to boost consumption and develop new products to meet changing consumer needs, is the industry going to have enough personnel to make the product and get it to market?
Capps told me there’s a world of opportunity for people willing to put in the time and effort to rise through the ranks and become the next generation of dairy leaders. He and others stand at the ready with a commitment of training and capital to make it happen.
Perhaps an industry-wide recruitment effort is in order. With all the energy spent on convincing consumers to eat and drink more dairy, we’d better make sure there are enough people to run the plant.
“Who will help me pasteurize the milk?” asked the Little Red Hen.  
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