Expanding student access with 2-year certificates

The MSU Institute of Agricultural Technology works with community college and industry partners to train students for future jobs in food processing and beyond.

Image of processing red and green peppers.
The IAT Food Processing, Technology and Safety program accepted students beginning in fall 2019.

The Michigan State University Institute of Agricultural Technology (IAT), housed within the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources (CANR), has experienced huge growth, from partnering with two community colleges in 2012 to a dozen today.

These partnerships bring training to students close to their homes while also helping to fill a void in the workforce needs in the state.

“Our aim and purpose are to prepare individuals for high-paying jobs within Michigan,” said Randy Showerman, director of the IAT. “The uniqueness is that we’re providing students with a set of skills that allows them to be employed within a two-year period of time.”

MSU’s undergraduate students in food science, food engineering, food management and economics and packaging programs readily find food industry jobs in the state, nationally and internationally. However, the need to fill operator and middle management positions with skilled employees has continued to be a gap for food processors in Michigan.

According to a 2012 survey by the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (MDARD), 68% of Michigan food processors planned to hire new employees within three years, and 38% of respondents had challenges finding employees with the necessary skillsets. Since then, the need for a highly skilled food-processing workforce has continued to expand.

Clarence Rudat, IAT program coordinator at Muskegon Community College in Muskegon and West Shore Community College in Scottville, said the community college partnerships open opportunities to students who may not have been able to attend courses at MSU.

“IAT programs appeal to students who may have families, full-time jobs or other commitments that make it difficult to move to East Lansing,” Rudat said. “Being able to participate at a community college enables people to take classes locally to further their future careers.”

MSU IAT enrollment has more than doubled over the past seven years to nearly 500 students across the 14 certificate degree programs. Of the 2019 graduates, 90% went directly into the workforce, and 10 percent transferred into bachelor’s degree programs.

“The food and agriculture industry, particularly the food processing sector, continues to expand rapidly, resulting in positive economic growth and increased employment opportunities,” said Kelly Millenbah, CANR senior associate dean and director of academic and student affairs.

“The demands created by changes in current technologies, standards and safety requirements mean that meeting the personnel needs of these expanding businesses is contingent upon availability of an educated and skilled workforce,” she added.

Industry and business stakeholders helped develop the IAT Food Processing, Technology and Safety certificate program as one way to support their need for future employees. The program had eight students in East Lansing and Muskegon when it launched in fall 2019. Enrollment is now open for the spring and fall 2020 semesters.

"Being able to participate at a community college enables people to take classes locally to further their future careers." - Clarence Rudat, IAT Program Coordinator

This is the first IAT certificate program offered both in East Lansing and at partner locations including Delta College in University Center, Kellogg Community College in Battle Creek, Muskegon Community College in Muskegon, Northwestern Michigan College in Traverse City and Wayne Community College District - Downriver in Taylor.

“Food processors are hungry for students they know are a good fit and have the skills and training,” Rudat said. “Our challenge is getting enough people in the IAT food processing program to meet the existing demand of Michigan companies. There are jobs out there, and the opportunities are growing.”

To support statewide training, MDARD provided funding for the on-campus food processing lab renovations and one mobile food-processing lab that will be used in the certificate program. The mobile lab will deliver hands-on training to the IAT community college partners, thus reducing the need for infrastructure investments at each school.

Students are dually enrolled, taking both MSU and community college courses that count toward an MSU certificate and a community college associate degree. Students are also required to complete a paid internship as part of preparing for their future careers.

“Innovative strategies are required to meet the employment demands of industry that may not otherwise be offered via current educational opportunities,” Millenbah said. “Certificate programs, community colleges and online classes provide ways to train workers, especially the growing population of students from diverse backgrounds and motivations.”

The IAT leverages MSU’s collective research and knowledge to provide various communities and industries in Michigan with training options around the state to expand access and open career paths for Michiganders.

“When people are trained in their communities, they tend to stay and pursue work opportunities that support those local economies,” Showerman said. “We want to make sure people know there are employment opportunities and tailored training through the IAT for jobs around Michigan.”

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