Baby boomer blues

by Arvin Donley
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With 50% of its workforce expected to retire in the next decade, the U.S. milling industry is stepping up recruiting efforts.
 
Like every other business in the United States, the flour milling industry is starting to feel the impact of the baby boomer generation (those born from 1946 to 1964) leaving the workforce. Since Jan. 1, 2011, an estimated 10,000 baby boomers have been retiring each day in the United States, according to the Pew Research Center, and that trend is expected to continue through 2030.

 

IAOM president
Steve Doyle, vice-president of King Milling and president of the IAOM.

During the 2017 International Association of Operative Millers (IAOM) Conference & Expo in New Orleans, Louisiana, U.S., Steve Doyle, vice-president of King Milling and president of the IAOM, noted that 50% of the current milling workforce in the United States is expected to retire within the next decade.

With so many of its workers now at or nearing retirement age, U.S. milling companies are working harder than ever to attract new workers to their industry. Partnering with Kansas State University (K-State), which is the only university in the United States that offers a milling science degree, and the Lenexa, Kansas, U.S.-based International Association of Operative Millers (IAOM), the industry is taking unprecedented steps to attempt to make its workforce younger and more diversified.

Frances Churchill, NAMA instructor of milling science and management at K-State, told World Grain the impact of the baby boomer exodus from the workforce was something that milling industry leaders have been discussing for years, but it’s only been in the last three years or so that a well-mapped out strategy to replace them has been implemented.

“Traditionally our best recruiting technique has been word of mouth,” Churchill said. “That is no longer enough to get the numbers to support the milling industry. We have regrouped and revitalized our recruiting committee to get more ideas going again.

milling recruits
Sifters are discussed during a milling science class at the Hal Ross Flour Mill.
Photo courtesy of the K-State department of Grain Science and Industry.
 
“A couple of ideas include inviting high school students to Grain Science and Industry Day here at K-State and developing grain science-related lesson plans for high school science teachers. The biggest ‘problem’ seems to be the public’s awareness of the K-State Milling Science program and of the industry in general.”

Troy Anderson, senior director of operations at Ardent Mills and a member of the IAOM employee relations committee that also includes Churchill, told World Grain the IAOM-sponsored website called www.grainmillingcareers.com is another new recruiting method. The website features information on job openings in the industry, descriptions of career options and testimonials from milling industry professionals.

“I feel that has helped bring awareness of our industry and is a great recruiting tool for our industry,” Anderson said. “Our first responsibility is to provide greater awareness about our industry to potential talent so they understand the great career paths they can choose within our industry. That has been a weakness in the past.”

While flour milling, as even those in the industry admit, is not the most glamorous occupation — the work is done in a dusty, noisy and sometimes hot environment and employees sometimes work odd shifts since most mills run 24 hours a day, seven days a week — it also is an attractive profession in other ways.

Melinda Farris executive VP of IAOM
Melinda Farris, IAOM executive vice-president.

As Melinda Farris, IAOM executive vice-president, points out, every student who graduates from the milling science program has three to five job offers, essentially 100% placement and most get some sort of signing bonus to go along with a starting salary that is typically in the neighborhood of $50,000 to $60,000 per year, with an excellent chance for advancement. In some cases, moving expenses are paid.

“It’s a stable, recession-proof career,” Farris said. “And you can travel the world if you want to. If you have a degree in milling science from K-State you can go anywhere in the world and get a job as a miller.”

Added Churchill: “The starting wages are fantastic — definitely high enough to attract quality people to the industry. They are always a good selling point for our programs.”

While the KSU Department of Grain Science and Industry asked that the number of students enrolled not be included in this article, it did note that enrollment in the milling science curriculum is up, while the College of Agriculture enrollment is flat and overall university enrollment is down.

In addition to trying to increase enrollment in the milling science program, K-State also has a goal of attracting more women to the program, Anderson said.

“We know we have to get past our reputation as being a male-dominated industry,” he said. “We are focusing a lot of attention on attracting more females into our industry, whether it’s in a production or professional role. We feel we haven’t even come close to tapping the potential for recruiting in that area. That’s half the population that has been under-recruited in the past and we have to do a better job at that in the future. We are determined to make our industry more diverse.”

IAOM milling tech program take home lab
The online vocational program's at home lab exercises simulate mill experiences, concepts and activities, machinery functions and product quality, using readily available products and items found around the home.
Photo courtesy of IAOM.
 

Milling technician program

While K-State has for decades been the primary training ground for professional millers, the IAOM recently created another program to develop new talent for the industry at lower levels with its Cowley College (Kansas) Milling Technician Certificate Program. The online vocational program, which is open to people with no milling experience, prepares students for a career in flour milling with two semesters of coursework and an internship at a flour mill.

“To the best of our knowledge, it is the only one-year college program certificate in the world that’s college degree granting,” said Tom Sargent, IAOM’s director of professional development. “There are some excellent training programs out there worldwide, no question about that. But this program is that niche between no training at all and a bachelor’s degree.”

Although graduates of the Cowley College program, which was introduced in August 2016, will not immediately step into professional roles at flour mills, Anderson said there are many examples of individuals in the industry who did not graduate from K-State’s milling science program but eventually worked their way into a management position.

“It is quite common in our industry to find individuals with the right skillset, passion and desire to take advantage of some educational opportunities while working to advance their careers,” Anderson said. “There are a good number of individuals who have worked themselves into a professional role within the organization.

“The sky is the limit for people who want to grow in this industry, whether it’s entering in a production role or a professional role.”

milling recruits
Milling science students get a hands-on experince at the Hal Ross Flour Mill on the K-State campus.
Photo courtesy of the K-State department of Grain Science and Industry.
 

Global changes

Roger Wieser, who has worked at flour mills in Switzerland, Canada, El Salvador, Indonesia and Nigeria during his 38-year career, told World Grain that while most other countries are not facing the specific problem of baby boomers retiring, they still face an uphill battle to hire “qualified” head millers.

“Compared to other industries, the operational people are not paid well,” Wieser said. “If you look at the environment, which is noisy and dusty, and their responsibility due to the mills running 24 hours a day, seven days a week, you really need person who is made to be a head miller. Just training and courses are not enough to encourage a new head miller into the field.”

He said the generation now entering the workforce has certain expectations that may discourage them from being operative millers.

“People who are coming from a university or with a higher degree expect a well-paid, day-only job and dust and noise-free environment,” Wieser said. “I find that people coming from a rural background are usually more hands-on which is important in the milling business.”

Wieser and Anderson, both of whom have been in the industry for 30-plus years, as part of their sales pitch to students and other prospective workers, always emphasize that the milling industry is a close-knit, altruistic profession.

“It’s a noble cause and a noble purpose,” Anderson said. “We’re a very tight group. We all feel we’re contributing a great deal to making our world a better place by providing a nutritious, healthy and stable product. We’ve been feeding and nourishing people for centuries. I believe the generation coming in is even more focused on contributing to noble causes so the milling industry is a perfect fit in that regard.”

 

 

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