High school students in the Magic Valley are participating in apprenticeships to help them learn manufacturing skills.
Similar to the software engineering apprenticeship program and the healthcare apprenticeship program the Department of Labor also offers, the manufacturing apprenticeship program – focused on the food processing industry in the Magic Valley – is intended to help those industries find skilled workers, especially during historically low unemployment rates.
“It came about through some of our local food processing companies having a demand for machine operators,” said Chet Jeppeson, a Department of Labor workforce consultant in Burley. “We’re not talking about bulldozers and graders, but the automated machines in food processing and the plastics industries.”
Through the School to Registered Apprenticeship Program, Occupational Safety and Health Administration allows manufacturing partners to hire students as young as 16 years old, with a 1-1 mentoring ratio for training and safety, Jeppeson said. Students attend a 7 a.m. class three times per week and are required to be on time and attentive, with a “three strikes” policy that cut the 16-student class down to seven, he said.
Labor set up a joint project with the Minidoka and Cassia school districts. “That in itself was a major feat for us,” Jeppeson said. “Mini-Cassia have a rivalry that goes back to the starting of the state of Idaho.” But businesses wanted a single program to sponsor, not two, he said.
At High Desert Milk, a Burley milk processing plant, four interns cycled through the plant’s four areas, working for three weeks in each one, said Karla Robinson, comptroller. These are sanitation and powder packaging, the dryer, wet processing, and intake. “Obviously, sanitation is their least favorite,” she said. “It’s cleaning and learning how to clean for a food environment. They had that in school, but until you experience it, it’s honestly all-day cleaning for a good ten days.”
In contrast, most loved intake, where the milk comes into the plant, Robinson said. The apprentices sampled milk and checked for antibiotics, which requires understanding laboratory skills. Dryer and wet processing involves running the machines to produce nonfat dry milk and butter. Apprentices are paid $13 an hour, plus a $1 incentive.
McCain Foods, in Burley, produces frozen French fries and other potato items. It is one of the largest facilities of the company’s 53 manufacturing plants, 11 of which are in the U.S., said Jeff McCray, plant manager. The company took on two apprentices, and this summer was their first opportunity to participate in the on-the-job portion, he said.
“The apprentices learn how to be machine operators, which includes learning how to safely operate many of the pieces of equipment that we have in our plant,” McCray said. “Apprentices could learn to operate the batter system, the control room, the central receiving equipment, the peelers, the cutters, the palletizing equipment, the packaging equipment, and more.” This summer, apprentices learned how to be a packaging line operator on the French fry and hash brown lines, he said. Apprentices are paid $15.75 per hour, the entry-level wage at the company.
When students graduate, they can continue with the companies, and also continue to attend the 7 a.m. class. Students who are still in high school can also continue with the program.
Both companies said they would participate in the program again. “McCain supervisors have had a very positive experience with the two apprentices who caught on very quickly, understanding the technology, and its safe operation,” McCray said. “One manager asked for 10 more!”
“We have to come up with these creative ideas, because there’s no one to hire,” Robinson said. “There’s good jobs here that a lot of kids don’t know about. We’re trying to get into high schools and get this on their radar. If they want to stay here, and they can get out of school with a wage like this and no debt, it’s becoming more attractive to a lot of these kids.”