LITTLE ROCK, ARKANSAS, US –Transferring knowledge to the next generation of millers and training maintenance workers are two of the major challenges facing the milling industry in the future, said industry veterans during a panel discussion at the 125th anniversary of the International Association of Operative Millers’ (IAOM) Conference and Expo in Little Rock, Arkansas, US.

The panel of five experts, which included millers and equipment and service providers, shared their insights during the Millers’ Panel discussion and offered advice to the younger millers in the audience.

“Career changes and surprises happen to anyone,” said Ed LaPreze, Pepper Maintenance, who wanted to be a computer programmer until the PC put him out of a job before he graduated college. “Change is the one thing you can surely count on. Just accept and be aware of it.”

In the near future, a critical need for the milling industry will be skilled maintenance workers, he said.

“Our skilled maintenance people have left and retired and taken all of their skills with them,” LaPreze said. “We’re not developing any programs in any facilities to apprentice and train.” 

He suggested starting in local regions and finding people who want to work in maintenance, because the desire has to be there first. While there are companies training maintenance to millwrights, more is needed in terms of general maintenance training.

“That’s a big problem that we need to try to address,” LaPreze said. “For years and years, we’ve taken the new guy and put a grease gun in his hand and said go grease. We can’t do that anymore. Lubrication is an actual science. We have multiple applications and that’s a science to understand what lubricant needs to go where.”

LaPreze said he sees a diminishing capacity of maintenance workers everywhere, not just in flour milling.

“A lot of programs are too big for local maintenance people; it’s too much training,” he said. “Local maintenance workers don’t have to train to be professional millwrights.”

With workers retiring, there is a growing potential for safety concerns with inexperienced workers, said Anthony Yount, Ardent Mills.

“Those older people have a history of close calls and near misses,” he said. “But new people coming in, they’re great, smart, ambitious but they don’t have the experience to say, ‘Hey, I’m uncomfortable with that,’ or the willingness to raise a hand and say, ‘I don’t like this.’”

LaPreze suggested mentorship programs could be started where new maintenance hires apprentice with the most experienced worker for a certain period of time.

“We’ve got to get this knowledge passed,” he said. “We need to establish that culture where we can pass on information. Experience is worth a lot of money if we can keep passing it down.”

Connecting with the next generation

Passing on milling knowledge to the next generation also will be a challenge in the next five to 10 years because the upcoming generation learns differently, said Jeff Seeger, Great Western Manufacturing.

“I get hit up every day for a video on how to do something,” he said. “We’re starting to try to do the videos, but we’re worried we’re not professionals. But if you look at YouTube, they’re not professionals, and sometimes that’s all they need.”

Cell phones are another common method for finding answers for the younger generation, said Tom Byrnes, Blower Engineering, much like they used to look in a book.

“Their experience is looking at the phone or a video,” he said. “We need to come up with a way to transfer our knowledge to the younger generation that they can absorb easily, and they like.”

Seeger noted that when he was a miller, he was challenged to try to improve the mill every day. But now, as milling companies have gotten larger, young millers are told to keep their hands off and not change anything without checking first. 

“You would learn more about the process and you would learn from your mistakes,” he said.

Experienced millers need to do a better job of explaining the why, Yount said. When a young person is asked to do something, they may ask why, and it needs to be explained to them.

“The reason why is you don’t want to get carried away in a body bag,” he said. “Older people have been around; they have seen the tragedies in the mill. They understand the why very well. If we aren’t passing that along, we’re doomed to repeat it.”

Jeff Gwirtz, milling industry consultant and president of JAG Services Inc., who moderated the panel, said everyone in a leadership role in a mill serves as a type of mentor to the employees.

“If you’re a plant manager, you’re a mentor to everyone at that plant,” he said. “If you’re a supervisor, you can never not lead. If you talk about sanitation and you walk past a paper on the floor without putting it in the trash, you are sending a message. Take every moment you can to help some of the younger people learn this.”

Finding the employees to transfer the knowledge to is also a challenge, said Bryan Teems, Design Corrugating, a Bühler Group company.

“It’s a competitive job market,” he said. “It’s a hot job with long hours, long days. How do we inspire people to stay and continue with a company? It’s a challenge to find good people who are interested in the industry and want to continue with it.”

The panel also answered operations questions from the audience, including the most common mistakes after installing a pneumatic conveying line. Byrnes said the top two include the radius of the conveying line magnets and the position of things such as elbows, diverters or magnets. 

“If you put elbows back-to-back, the conveying line is much too short,” he said. “The pneumatic system will operate at a much higher pressure than it theoretically should operate at.”

He said a good rule of thumb is to allow a length equal to 10 to 12 times the diameter of the conveying line before the position of anything.

“Sometimes you can’t follow that, but it’s a good rule of thumb,” Byrnes said. 

The panel also was asked what millers can do to make it easier for suppliers to do their jobs. Several noted that providing as much information as possible when there is a problem is extremely helpful. 

“Any time we can get pictures or casting numbers, or any information you can give on a machine you’re calling to talk to us about, it makes our job that much easier,” Teems said. 

Suppliers want to hear when there are problems so they can have the opportunity to fix them. The worst thing to do is say nothing and the supplier assumes everything is working fine, Seeger said.

“You decided to go with someone else and we didn’t have the opportunity to rectify that issue for you,” he said. “It may not be an issue but maybe a better way for sanitation or design work. We look for feedback so we can improve.”

LaPreze agreed that feedback is essential, both positive and negative. 

“We would really appreciate it and it’s a way you could help us to provide better service for you,” he said. “The bad helps us improve and the good helps us move forward. We just like to hear that we’re providing good service, and if we’re not, we want to know so we can improve it.”