October 2001 // Volume 39 // Number 5 // Ideas at Work // 5IAW2

Previous Article Issue Contents Previous Article

Pathways to a Better Trained Workforce

Changes in the economic and social climate have intensified pressures on the food industry. A significant factor is the lack of qualified workers and, at the same time, a lack of well-paid jobs and desirable careers. "Pathways to a Better Trained Workforce" is a 5-year project funded by the Mid-Atlantic Consortium through the W. K. Kellogg Foundation. The mission is to create a regional workforce development system that will provide a well-trained, reliable workforce for the food industry. The project is led by a team from Rutgers and Cornell Universities as a multi-state collaborative effort among educators, policy makers, and employers.

Gloria Kraft
County 4-H Agent
Rutgers Cooperative Extension
Mount Holly, New Jersey
Internet Address: kraft@aesop.rutgers.edu


The food industry has been facing a growing dilemma. Many people hired at the entry level lack basic skills and demonstrate non-compliance with expected attitudes and behavior. At all levels, including management, the workforce frequently lacks interpersonal, teamwork, and communication skills necessary in a rapidly changing and diverse workplace. These concerns are shared by many industries and have been cited in numerous industry reports (Blaine, Hudkin, & Taylor, 1999). One concern that may be unique to the food industry is its negative image as a low skill, low pay, and "dead end" job.

Results of focus group discussions indicate that high school students identify "bagger, cashier, and burger flipper" as the food industry jobs they know about. They do not see a connection between these jobs and a lifelong career (Wood, 1988). This negative perception as well as the reported lack of qualified workers presents numerous challenges to the productivity and even the survival of food companies.

Facing these challenges will require a learning system that addresses the increasing complexity, diversity, and uncertainty that is characteristic not only of the food industry but of the global economic climate. Furthermore, the changes occurring are discontinuous with the past and require rapid preparation, adaptation, and invention (Dik & Deshler, 1988).


In 1997, faculty from Rutgers and Cornell Universities initiated "Pathways to a Better Trained Workforce" as an effort to address the workforce needs of the food industry in the Mid-Atlantic region. The support of a broad base of stakeholders was enlisted. Funding was obtained from the Mid-Atlantic Consortium (MAC) through the W. K. Kellogg foundation to establish collaboration and to plan an implementation project. The MAC is led by Rutgers University as part of a nationwide Food Systems Professions Education Initiative funded by the W. K. Kellogg Foundation (Fugate, 1996).

The purpose of "Pathways to a Better Trained Workforce" is to create a regional workforce development system that will provide a well-trained, reliable workforce for the food industry. This system will also serve employees by providing multiple, connected career pathways while removing barriers to accessing them. In addition, diverse youth and adult audiences will learn about the food industry through experiential programs and activities.


In a climate of limited resources the most effective method for achieving goals is strategic collaboration (Laughlin & Schmidt, 1995). Under the leadership of the Project Director, Benjamin Wood, Department of Education, Cornell University, the "Pathways" team developed a strategy to identify key players in the industry as well as government agencies and trade associations in the region. The Rutgers-Cornell team leveraged their network of contacts and succeeded in bringing a significant number of key players to the table. Several leaders emerged during this process, including the Metropolitan Food Council of New York City, the New York City Department of Employment, Ocean Spray Cranberries, Incorporated, Junior Achievement, Incorporated, and staff from Sussex County Community College as well as Extension staff from Rutgers and Cornell.

Throughout the first year, these partners engaged in a long-term visioning process to establish a structure for systemic change that would ensure the viability of the regional food system in the future. In particular, they addressed the issues related to the workforce such as education and training, image of the food industry, and accessibility to career options. As a result of these discussions, a collaborative implementation proposal was developed that included a cash match from the partners. The "Pathways" team was awarded $225,000 by the Mid-Atlantic Consortium to implement 10 workforce education projects in New Jersey, Delaware, and New York City.

Recognizing that successful collaboration requires a framework that fosters trusting relationships built over time, a structure was adopted that included a leadership team, an implementation team, and an advisory team. Each of these groups had a unique function, met separately, but also met together as a whole group. Over the course of several meetings in 2 years, the frequent communication resulted in mutual understanding and a willingness to share resources. New partners are continually introduced to expand the network and create a foundation based on the common good as well as self-interest that will sustain the effort.


The following are initial results after the first year of project implementation in the three states, Delaware, New Jersey, and New York.

  • Two hundred fifty people representing secondary and post secondary schools, government, organized labor, trade and industry groups, private business, community groups, and Cooperative Extension are networking on a regional level to design, implement, and replicate programs.

  • A regional governance team of 12 partners and an advisory group of 45 partners meet regularly to share decision making and provide structure for sustainability of the developing system.

  • Two elementary level curricula, "Young Consumers" and "The Supermarket Experience," are being offered to fourth and fifth grade students in three states. The programs are conducted by owners and managers of local supermarkets.

  • Out-of-school youth are being reconnected to school and the workplace. In New York City, 23 youth (mostly Spanish speaking) have returned to GED programs, received workplace skill training, and are in paid internships enroute to higher paying management jobs in the food retailing industry.

  • A 35-credit certificate course, "Food Packaging and Processing Technician," has been developed in partnership with Ocean Spray Cranberries, Inc. The class is being taught at the factory in a live, virtual, and constructive learning environment.

  • In New York City (for the first time), a study has been completed and published on the workforce development needs of the city's food industry.

  • Articulation agreements between colleges in New Jersey allow students to articulate between high school, community colleges, and 4-year institutions in Food Retailing Management.

  • Over 200 food system careers have been documented in a publication to better inform guidance counselors, young people, and prospective workers of potential careers, skills, and education required and where to obtain skill training in the region.

The greatest challenge of this project is sustainability. Currently, the partners have demonstrated their commitment by contributing resources on an 8:1 ratio to grant dollars. The MAC has recently awarded an additional $169,000 to the "Pathways" team. This money will be used to leverage increasing investment from the collaborative partners. The team continues to strengthen the connection between education and industry and engage in new opportunities to ensure the vitality of the food system in the region.


Blaine, T. W., Hudkins, S., & Taylor, C. R., (1999). Taking R & E to the next level. Journal of Extension [On-line]. 37(6). Available: http://www.joe.org/joe/1999december/index.html

Wood, B. (1998). Young people's perspective on the food retailing industry. Unpublished report, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York.

Dik, D. W., & Deshler, J. D., (1988). Why wait until 2010? Journal of Extension [On-line]. 26(3). Available: http://www.joe.org/joe/1988fall/index.html

Fugate, S. (1996). Kellogg Foundation initiative seeks to catalyze change at land-grant institutions. Journal of Extension [On-line]. 34(5). Available: http://www.joe.org/joe/1996october/index.html

Laughlin, K. M., & Schmidt, J. L, (1995). Maximizing program delivery in Extension: Lessons from leadership for transformation. Journal of Extension [On-line]. 33(4). Available: http://www.joe.org/joe/1995august/a4.html