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EDUCATIONAL AND TRAINING INITIATIVE TO CREATE A PROMISING FUTURE FOR THE FOOD PROCESSING INDUSTRY

as farmers, we know we don’t get the recognition deserved each time consumers fill up their dinner plates, but we aren’t the only industry that gets overlooked at dinner time. As the second largest manufacturing sector in the province, the food and beverage processing industry creates $34 billion in shipments annually and is responsible for taking our agricultural products and transforming them into the good foods consumers enjoy every day. In fact, Ontario food processors purchase more than 70 percent of Ontario’s agricultural production making both industries reliant on each other for success and stability.

“Growing the food processing industry means agricultural production has a chance to grow too,” says Rob Kee, director for the Alliance of Ontario Food Processors and managing director of Casco.  Currently, growth in the food and beverage processing industry is at a standstill due to a critical shortage of skilled workers. The shortage is resulting in lost business opportunities, lower productivity, and reduced ability to adopt innovative technologies, not to mention creating an uncompetitive situation for the sector. This shortage of skilled labour was identified two years ago through a study conducted by the Alliance of Food Processors (AOFP). With a membership of 500 processing companies, the AOFP is a provincial association representing Ontario’s food and beverage processing industry.

partnering for solutions
A partnership between the AOFP and Conestoga College was formed to address the labour crisis resulting in the creation of the Institute of Food Processing Technology (IFPT). A new training facility, located in Cambridge is currently under construction and will enable the partnership to provide a dedicated training centre, the unique result of this industry driven initiative. The first of its kind in North America, the training facility is to be Canada’s preeminent institution for the development of a highly skilled workforce for the food and beverage manufacturing industry.

“Twenty years ago, the industry involved substantial manual processing,” says Luis Garcia, chair, Institute of Food Processing Technology. “Today we need workers skilled in areas such as machine operation, maintenance mechanics and problem solving to stay competitive.” Garcia says the goal of the new IFPT facility is training, with research and production technology opportunities for the industry to follow. The new facility will target students graduating high school, new immigrants and workers from other sectors looking to train for a second career.  The IFPT is currently offering its first course, Food Safety Level 1 and the doors of the new facility will be officially opened for the fall of 2011 with a range of programs being offered.

available programs
The Process Operator: Food Manufacturing apprenticeship program is new, specific to the food and beverage processing industry and the first program offered through the IFPT. The curriculum, developed through the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities provides current employees within the industry both classroom and supervised on the job training focusing on areas such as food safety and security, electrical and instrumentation, mechanical and continuous quality improvement.

A one-year certificate program will prepare students for skilled jobs within the food and beverage processing industry teaching them food processing techniques, food safety, machine operation and computer and math skills.

The two-year diploma will combine classroom, lab and shop facilities offered through the School of Engineering and Information Technology at Conestoga College. The shops will be outfitted with food processing equipment, another aspect unique only to the IFPT facility. A pilot plant will be constructed for the program creating a small scale food processing facility where students will gain hands on training in all aspects of a processing plant from equipment set-up to running, cleaning, sanitizing and putting away equipment. Food and beverage processing companies will also have an opportunity to utilize the new pilot plant for product development and testing new products in an industrial setting once the facility and courses are established. “These programs are designed to shorten the learning curves on the job site,” says Garcia. “Students looking for a job will be better prepared and have had hands-on experience running a food processing line.”

The shortage of skilled labour is a critical issue for the food and beverage processing industry today. The new IFPT facility will provide the opportunity for the industry to position itself as a significant employer and contributor to our economy. One of the many benefits of a strong labour force is growth and development of the industry sector. Kee says this training and development initiative will “present Ontario to the world” and may attract other food and beverage processing companies to locate to Ontario, something farmers would be pleased to see since the two industries are so closely related and have the potential to grow together. •