BURLEY, Idaho • More college students seeking advanced degrees could fill the dairy industry pipeline, putting them on the fast track to a great paycheck, officials from schools, companies and labor agreed in a meeting Monday.
“I’ll do whatever I have to do. I will wear a sandwich board if I have to. I want to tell kids they can study for a career and come back to this area and make twice as much money as the Labor Department says they can make here,” said Mark Spence of Davisco Foods International Inc. The Minnesota-based firm was one of several companies that provided money to launch the Dairy Science Program at South Dakota State University.
“When people think of a dairy career, they think they’ll be in the barn milking cows or feeding in a stinky loader cab,” said Shawn Burton, plant manager for High Desert Milk in Burley.
But job opportunities in dairy don’t stop there — nor at the processing plants, Burton said.
Big money flows through the industry, and it creates many jobs, he said.
Jobs include food nutritionists, human resources, computer programming, food safety, managers and supervisors, engineers, research and lab technicians
Dairy workers are paid, on average, $12 to $18 an hour, said Chet Jeppesen, workforce consultant with the Idaho Department of Labor.
Burton said pay at his plant starts at $25,000 a year right out of college.
A production manager or supervisor would make $56,000 to $75,000 a year, said Dale Gifford, plant manager at Brewster West LLC in Rupert.
In some cases, managers may only work half the year.
“I’m really surprised that Idaho is the No. 3 state for dairy, and yet there is not a lot of drive here to kick students into dairy,” Spence said.
Glanbia Foods in Twin Falls recruits from the South Dakota university program, which boasts 100 percent placement for students, he said.
The South Dakota program has a dairy plant, and students are trained in all aspects of dairy processing.
High Desert Milk offers scholarships each year for students who want a career in dairy science, said Karla Robinson, one of the dairy’s owners.
Other companies also offer scholarships, which sometimes go unfilled.
College credits for students who earn a two-year degree from the College of Southern Idaho will transfer in full to the South Dakota program, said Dana Dehaan, curriculum director for the Cassia County School District.
CSI recently received a grant of nearly $2.5 million to launch a new degree program in Food Quality Management.
The key to high-paying dairy jobs in the Magic Valley is getting experience, Jeppesen said.
There are many paths to good dairy industry jobs, especially for students interested in science and math, Gifford said.
Spence said a strong work ethic and being able to think ahead are critical.
“If you are processing 6.5 million pounds of milk a day and you have a problem, you better be able to mitigate it like you were in a 747 (airplane),” he said.
Burton said one employee’s three-minute stupor could cost the company $150,000 and three days of production time.
Not enough workers are advancing into quality control in dairy plants, Spence said. “If you don’t have a good lab, you might as well close your doors.”
High schools need more money to provide food-related curriculum, said Jaysa Fillmore, agriculture science teacher at Burley High School.
“You can’t teach proper lab techniques if you are using paper cups,” Fillmore said.
Dehaan said the school district will look into other curriculum programs in the Magic Valley and will plan more meetings for educators and students.
“We need to partner a little better and raise awareness about filling this pipeline,” said Lex Godfrey, who also teaches agriculture science at Burley High. “I like to hear that kids will come back home after college.”