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Biofuels industry seeks to attract ‘gold collar’ workers

The biggest challenge for the ethanol and biodiesel industry isn’t technology or enough raw materials. It’s not even public policy. The biggest hurdle is finding, training and keeping qualified employees.

That was the findings of a multi-state biofuels needs assessment sponsored by AURI, Minnesota Corn Growers, Minnesota Soybean Growers and Southwest Minnesota Foundation. The evaluation helped identify future ethanol and biodiesel plant staffing needs and any impediments to plant progress.

The assessment showed there could be as many as 7,000 to 10,000 jobs created in ethanol and 7,300 to 9,800 jobs in biodiesel over the next few years. Many of these jobs are what one interviewee called “gold collar” positions.

“A gold-collar job combines both thinking and doing,” says Duane Carrow, renewable-energy program director at Minnesota West Community and Technical College in Granite Falls, Minn. “Those are the kinds of jobs that are available in the renewable-fuels industry.”

The challenge is retaining quality talent. Plant managers, in particular, are in high demand and can be difficult to retain because of opportunities at other facilities. Changing key managers can have a lasting impact on plants as it takes valuable time and resources to acclimate new leaders. Operator positions tend to have lower turnover due to advancement opportunities.

The assessment included interviewing and surveying nearly 80 people involved in Midwest biofuels production. Conducted by the Russell Herder marketing firm, and assisted by student marketing programs at Southwest Minnesota State and Bemidji State Universities, the survey identified immediate staffing needs for the industry, but also found good job opportunities.

While the biofuels industry is driven largely by public policy, such as renewable-fuels standards, the growth outlook is strong, the study showed. About 40 new ethanol plants across the country are under construction or being planned for the next two years. Biodiesel growth isn’t likely to be as aggressive as ethanol, but it is expected to provide opportunities for rural communities.

The skills that will grow in demand include plant management, rail safety, basic equipment operation and mechanical engineering. While the need for qualified employees is high, most plants aren’t financially able to invest enough in employee training — other than on-the-job.

The need for more training is creating opportunities for renewable-energy curriculum at Midwest higher education institutions. Several do offer biofuels training, but there is an urgent need for more.

“The education system needs to come to the table quite quickly to meet those educational needs today,” says Chuck Neece of FUMPA Biofuels in Redwood Falls.

Technical proficiency is a key requirement for employees at any level, but the assessment identified leadership, team-building and skills in multiple disciplines as being of greater importance in any position.

Industry leaders and plant managers also recognize the importance of raising awareness of biofuels career opportunities to inspire young people to work in the industry.

“This assessment was originated to give us an idea of what the needs were and to get a lay of the land,” says AURI Executive Director Teresa Spaeth. “This will go hand-in-hand with the efforts of the talent development team of the Renewable Energy Roundtable.

“It has become fairly obvious that while issues like public policy and research are important to the industry, right now talent development is key.”

Information from the biofuel-needs assessment will be used to identify educational needs and highlight career opportunities — the fuel that the industry needs to keep it from running out of energy.