Batavia, NY (WBEN) -- Genesee Community College is banking on the belief that the county’s yogurt boom won’t go bust. That’s why it’s implementing a unique program to attract workers to its growing number of food processing plants. Its Food Processing Technology degree beginning this Fall seeks to keep up with the workforce demands of local processors as the country continues to court them in.
Rachael Tabelski, Director of Marketing and Communications for the Genesee County Economic Development Center says it all started a couple of years ago when the GCEDC was developing the Genesee Valley Agri-business Park in Batavia, securing its first tenant, Colombian yogurt manufacturer Alpina.
“We engaged not only Alpina but other food processors to find out what their educational needs were for employees because we didn’t want to bring in new food processing companies to hurt existing companies here,” she said.
It goes without saying that increased educational opportunities improve communities as residents’ larger income gets recycled back into the community. If companies continue to believe in manufacturing right where the supply is, Tabelski and college officials don’t see the demand for educated workers to diminishing any time soon.
In addition to attracting more business to the Agri-business Park, Yancy’s Fancy is expanding its Pembroke headquarters and O-at-Ka has maintained its status of one of the largest employers in the county.
“All of those companies have the ability to expand and not having employees won’t inhibit them now,” she said. “With this program, they’ll be able to expand and others will be able to move here and feel confident that we have the workforce ready.”
The agriculture, food and beverage sector employs 5,000 people in Genesee County now, but it could be thousands more if the Agri-business Park is developed to its full potential. The board recently approved building infrastructure to create shovel-ready space to entice new manufacturing companies.
Maureen Leupold, Director of Science and professor of biology and Dr. Rafael Alicea-Maldonado (or, Dr. RAM, as he’s referred to), Dean of Math, Science and Career Education, say working in food manufacturing is more than wearing a hair net watching product go by on the belt. As the GCEDC was securing yogurt manufacturers, the wheels started turning to capitalize on the companies’ needs for a workforce. The program – which begins this fall semester – is done in conjunction with Cornell Cooperative Extension. Students will be taking biology, chemistry and business courses to set them apart from workers who may already be employed at the plants.
“We thought, we need to address this need in the community because that’s what community colleges do – they address those (career) needs in the community,” Dr. RAM said.
The GCEDC estimates salaries ranging from $30,000 for trained manufacturing workers, up to $50-150,000 for engineers and managers with advanced food study.
From supervisors to operations to quality control, “There are many ways to help a company,” Dr. RAM said. There is also surprisingly good variety within the field, and strong salaries to match.
“It’s not just being on the line and working for things to be shipped out. You have to know more than that and that’s what the associate’s degree provides that a high school diploma would not,” he said.
Leupold and Dr. RAM began attending food processing conferences to learn about what the industry seeks in employees. Leupold realized the county’s dedication to expanding food processing was a blessing for people who want to stay in western New York, but need a secure and dependable job to do that.
“When I walked away from that workplace development workshop a couple weeks ago,” Leupold said, “all I was thinking was, ‘This is the way the old Kodak used to be.’ You didn’t have to have a bachelor’s degree to get a job there. It was in your backyard. You could earn enough money to buy a home, buy a car, have a vacation, send the kids to school. These are ‘made in America,’ in-your-backyard jobs. These companies are in area. If you start looking at who’s there, all the counties around us seem to have at least a couple. This is a booming business, so this, to me, is a no-brainer that we’re doing this at this time.”
“So many of the students that I have come through classes, they really don’t want to move away. They want to be employed right here. They love it here in western New York. This is an opportunity that’s just, to me, amazing that it’s come to our doorstep like this. I think that when you get a couple big plants like we have with the yogurt industry now, it’s attracting more and more.”
Leupold admits, though, that expectations are modest to start.
“If we can get that first cohort of around 20 people, we’d be very happy and every year it can go up from there,” Leupold said.
It’s unclear what kind of impact the degree will have on the county. Certainly officials hope people come to GCC looking for a degree to set them up with a quality manufacturing job and want to stay, therefore improving the local economy.
“We’re looking forward to opportunities like that,” Dr. RAM said. “Getting new people into the community – that’s always a good thing, especially in this area when we’ve been draining for a long time with people leaving the community, mostly because they can’t find jobs. It would be great to say in a few years, ‘Genesee County has 5,000 more people living here and one of the reasons is this program.’ That would be great.”