Expanding the Tri-City’s food processing industry will take training skilled workers.
The Tri-City climate, soil, irrigation water and proximity to Asia gives the region’s food processing industry an opportunity to grow, more than 200 people were told Wednesday during the inaugural Grow Manufacturing lunch and expo at Pasco’s TRAC.
Skilled workers who can operate and maintain food processing plants are in short supply, local food processors say.
Gary White, the Tri-City Development Council’s director of business retention and expansion, said area processors have told him the Tri-Cities needs training programs specifically for hospitality, food processing, technical skills and public relations.
Other recommendations from a recent survey by White include creating a culinary school and a trade show featuring area processors. White visited 71 food and beverage producers in Benton and Franklin counties this year as part of Food and Beverage Retention & Expansion Opportunities, or FABREO Columbia Basin.
The Tri-Cities needs to leverage Washington State University Tri-Cities better for the future of food processing, said Dave Zepponi, recent past president of the Northwest Food Processors Association.
There has been a lot of emphasis on careers in STEM, or science, technology, engineering and mathematics, he said. But what is really needed are the plant engineers, maintenance workers and other mid-level employees.
Greg Schlafer, ConAgra Foods Lamb Weston president, said the company appreciates the existing strong, skilled workforce in the Columbia Basin. Lamb Weston employs about 4,300 people at its nine Columbia Basin plants.
“This is a wonderful place to grow potatoes and have a potato business,” he said.
Lamb Weston was presented with the 2014 Impact Washington Manufacturer of the Year Award during the event.
Lamb Weston has focused on expanding globally, including finishing a $200 million new processing line at its Boardman potato processing plant to up its french fry production, Schlafer said.
The Northwest needs to find more productive ways to access the growing China and Asia-Pacific markets, Zepponi said.
“We are the cornucopia of the world,” he said.
Northwest food processing is poised to grow, Zepponi said. More people are investing in it as the U.S. comes out of the recent recession.
It’s an industry that remained strong even during the recession, adding jobs while other industries were making cuts, he said.