When people think of Lamb Weston and the labor needed to operate the potato processing giant, a college-educated workforce might not be the first thing to come to mind.
“What’s coming next in the potato industry is coming out of this building,” said Mark Schuster, a vice president in finance at Lamb Weston. He was leading a trio of leaders in higher education on a tour of the company’s Innovation Center near its new line in Richland.
“When you talk about the new line that we opened last year, that has the latest technology in the world. The way that we produce potato products now is different then it was 20 years ago.”
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Columbia Basin College President Rebekah Woods, WSU Tri-Cities Chancellor Sandra Haynes and Eastern Washington University President Mary Cullinan got a look at the plant’s innovation and technology centers, along with Diahann Howard of the Port of Benton and other education leaders.
Howard also is part of Eastern Washington’s regional advisory council.
“It seemed like an ideal time to get the leadership together and talk about what we can do together,” Cullinan said.
Woods and Haynes are part of the Tri-Cities Research District headed by Howard, so they also have an interest in producing graduates focused in science, technology, education and math (STEM) fields.
D. Patrick Jones, executive director of Eastern Washington’s Institute for Public Police and Economic Analysis, recently wrote in the Tri-City Journal of Business that the Tri-Cities are not producing enough STEM graduates meet the need of area employers.
Those jobs include fields such as industrial engineers, who spend their careers making large businesses — such as Lamb Weston — more efficient.
With technology playing a large role in agriculture, Howard said it’s even more important to bring the higher education leaders together to consider how they can work with local industry.
“You bring these higher education groups together, that’s what’s going to drive our business,” Schuster said. “Ag manufacturing is going to get more and more technical as the years go by.”