Guest Columns

Dairy Research

The new face of dairy industry training

John Lucey

John Lucey, director of the Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, contributes this column for Cheese Market News®.

Rendering courtesy of Center for Dairy Research

Training and the passing down of knowledge have always been an important part of the dairy industry. Many of our skilled cheesemakers, like our Wisconsin Master Cheesemakers, started working in their local or family plants at a young age where they got hands-on training and knowledge from experienced cheesemakers. This passing on of dairy knowledge is crucial to maintaining a vibrant industry.

However, as we all know, the industry is changing. Our plants are more automated, our employees receive less hands-on training and many have no background in dairy before starting at the plant. The dairy industry is also experiencing a lot of retirements. The “baby boomers,” who make up 29% of the U.S. population, are reaching retirement age. We are leaning more heavily on our younger workers.

Given the changing landscape of the dairy industry, we need to look at how we are training our employees. The past year has taught us that we need to be able to be flexible and creative in the ways and methods that we use to train employees.

Here at the Center for Dairy Research (CDR), we are passionate about training. Many of you are probably familiar with our short courses, which cover all sorts of different topics from dairy ingredients and beverages to cheese manufacturing. In the past year, we had to convert our courses, which were all traditionally held in person in Babcock Hall on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus, to virtual or online formats. Some of the courses are “on-demand” and some are live online. Either way, I’m proud of how our staff responded to the situation and were able to effectively move our courses online. This involved creating hours of demonstrative videos and reworking presentations. In some courses, such as Advanced Cheese Technology, we mailed cheese samples to attendees so that participants are all able to sample the various cheeses as we discuss them during the virtual courses.

Overall, we have received positive feedback on our virtual courses, and we will continue to offer on-demand and live online options even as we begin to move back to in-person events. For instance, our Cheesemaking 101 courses work well in the online format and allow people to take the course at their convenience.

Looking ahead, online training is here to stay, but we are looking forward to once again welcoming the dairy industry back into Babcock Hall for trainings. Babcock Hall is undergoing a $72.6 million building project that includes renovation of existing space and construction of a three-story addition for CDR. This new addition includes a dedicated, state-of-the-art training center for our short courses and trainings. We will have the ability to livestream video from our dairy plant and applications lab into the auditorium (see rendering). Each seating space in the new auditorium has individual power and internet connections. The auditorium is also adjacent to a new test kitchen for conducting labs or tasting products. Overall, we will lean more heavily on technology and these new capabilities to improve and expand our short courses.

As the dairy industry changes, we need to respond to those changes and re-evaluate how we train. Looking ahead at CDR, we are developing “training paths” for entry level, medium career and advanced employees.

These training paths would guide employees through a series of short courses and trainings to help them continue to build their knowledge and experience. Training should be science-based but practical and should provide lots of real-world examples. We also need to appreciate that individuals learn differently; it’s vital that they apply what they have learned and thus synthesize key concepts.

We are also seeing more areas or topics where training is needed. To meet these needs, we are working on some new short courses as well as relaunching some of our existing courses. Based on industry need and feedback, here are a couple courses that we are developing and hope to offer soon: Processing 101, Dairy QA 101 and Dairy Protein Functionality 101. Similarly, we hope to relaunch or revamp these existing courses: Certificate in Dairy Processing and Dairy Protein Beverages.

Traditional training methods like short courses will continue, but training and learning can take many different forms. For instance, learning can take place in a quick 30-minute mini lesson. To this end, CDR is developing an e-library of topic-specific learning modules. Employees could browse the different modules and get a short lesson or refresher on a range of dairy processing topics and processes.

Mentoring is a powerful and effective approach to connect our beginning employees with some of our more experienced professionals, such as our Wisconsin Master Cheesemakers, or we can encourage recent retirees to take time to pass on their knowledge to the next generation.

I know that employee training takes time and resources, but it is an investment essential to developing future leaders and innovators. Training is also critical to creating employees with the skills needed to address complex and evolving aspects like food safety, regulatory compliance and quality systems. Lifelong learning of employees, including taking training programs, should be encouraged to help build stronger dairy organizations.


The views expressed by CMN’s guest columnists are their own opinions and do not necessarily reflect those of Cheese Market News®.

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