Training Talent for Chicago's Food Industry

Training Talent for Chicago's Food Industry

Growing the food and beverage sector, currently 4,500 strong, the city is targeting high unemployment areas and offering specialty training.

While Chicago is known for its pizza, what might not be common knowledge is that the city is home to 4,500 food manufacturing companies.

And like the rest of the manufacturing world, they are having trouble finding qualified workers for job openings. Not a city to sit idle, it created The Chicagoland Food & Beverage Network (CFBN). The group’s goal is to tap into the collective knowledge of local industry food & beverage players -- big and small – to help identify curriculum needs to train a workforce. 

“Our analysis of food and beverage as an important economic cluster led us to conclude that if we grew this sector it would be a major contribution to the entire economy,” explained Alan Reed, CFBN Executive Director.

In fact, Reed says Chicago could become “Silicon Valley” of food.

The group was created with grants from the McCormick Foundation, The Polk Brothers Foundation, and a generous anonymous donor.

“The potential for this program is massive,” says Reed. “These are great jobs, paying $60,000 a year on average. These kinds of jobs – many of which are currently going unfilled –  are what is needed to close the wage gap for the unemployed and the underemployed.”

To serve the unemployed the group partnered with the Instituto del Progreso Latino. This group is a nonprofit organization that provides workforce development, adult education, youth development and citizenship services.

Their program, Career Pathways, which has years of success under its belt, will be used for training and is characterized by three key components:

Employer Driven: Instituto works closely with employers and industry representatives to help develop curriculum and create demand-driven training that results in the skills and credentials desired most by Chicago's employers.

Accelerated Learning: Instituto has a successful track record of creating contextualized education that allows students to quickly gain multiple skills at once.

Accessible to all Learners: Instituto's career pathways are designed to allow learners of all skill levels to enter the program. Instituto has successfully trained thousands of low-skilled and/or low-literacy employees to move up the career ladder and meet the needs of their employers.

Due to the fact that each person enters the workforce at different points based on their needs, Instituto offers a variety of programs. It can begin with literacy instruction in someone's native language, vocational ESL instruction, or college pre-requisites, and then transition into tailored job training and community college courses. Students receive industry-recognized credentials along the way, allowing them to move up the career ladder and increase their pay rapidly. Throughout, Instituto addresses the unique needs of families by providing key support services such as tutoring, childcare, financial planning, and more.

While training and education will go a long way toward providing new workers to this industry, Reed says that the industry will also have to sell itself as a modern, high-tech working environment that will attract younger workers. “We need to let people know that this a good, long-term career.”

With pockets of unemployment hitting 90% in some South and West Side areas of the city, it’s a perfect solution to provides jobs for these areas in an industry who are having troubling filing 30% of their jobs. “ Workforce development is the connective tissue to bring together these two groups,” Reed says.

While companies in the area have been training workers in their own facilities for a long time, this program is aiming to develop a workforce that is trained in all aspects of food production and would be able to move across companies as the needs arise. Specialized company training will continue at the plant level.

 “We are providing transferable skills so upon entering the company employees are able to contribute very quickly,” Reed points out.

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