Canada’s first centre for training skilled workers in food processing draws multinational companies to join Ontario Food Cluster’s $34 billion industry

The Conestoga College Institute of Food Processing Technology offers incoming agri-food companies state-of-the-art plant floor training using touch-screen computers and robotics.

Economic development executives from the Ontario Food Cluster are attending SIAL Brazil, The Latin American Food Marketplace, and the related Fispal Food Service Trade Show, promoting the new Conestoga College Institute of Food Processing Technology (IFPT) among other strengths to international companies that want to invest in Ontario’s expanding $34 billion agri-food sector – an ­industry that includes $9.9 billion of exports.

The Ontario Food Cluster currently includes 3,200 food and beverage companies that make up the second-largest food and beverage-processing jurisdiction in North America. They take advantage of Ontario’s excellent location and transportation links to 450 million affluent food consumers through the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

Located in Waterloo Region, the mandate of Conestoga College’s IFPT is to bolster Ontario’s global reputation for food quality with a new generation of skilled front-line plant floor workers. IFPT graduates are ready for jobs in state-of-the-art food processing plants as line operators, material handlers, machine operators, maintenance assistants, cleaning and sanitation lead hands, and supervisors. IFPT offers the first Canadian program to address this area of employment.

“IFPT graduates are ready to handle the latest touch-screen computer and robotics technology. The Institute’s creation was driven by the Alliance of Ontario Food Processors who made it an industry priority,” says Luis Garcia, Chair of IFPT. “International companies setting up new baked goods, vegetable processing or bottling plants in Ontario can also turn to IFPT to develop custom training for new workers being hired, and this is modeled on successful industry training partnerships Conestoga College has forged with companies like Toyota.”

“IFPT is the latest example of the Ontario Food Cluster’s compelling innovation-driven talent base,” says Barbara Maly, an Agri-food Business Development Specialist with the City of Guelph, one of 13 cities and regions that make up the Cluster. “International companies moving to or expanding in Ontario can tap into a renewable resource of graduates from over 55 university and college programs concentrating on agriculture, food science nutrition and other related food programs.”

Preparing and packaging the food we eat is Ontario’s number one industrial sector, with more than 130,000 direct jobs and another 483,000 workers in related sectors. Ontario expects to grow agri-food industry revenues about 15 per cent to $40 billion by 2013.

The IFPT opened in the fall of 2011 as part of a recent $125 million dollar expansion of the Conestoga College campus. Students learn to produce baked goods, vegetables and bottled beverages on three dedicated production lines. The lines handle everything from raw materials to finished, packaged products – just like a real food processing plant. The focus is on training workers who know how to work as a team, who understand the entire food processing operation and how they can impact line efficiencies, productivity and maintenance. In addition, IFPT programs stress communications skills, basic food chemistry, and documentation around key issues such as food quality and safety.

To put the “icing on the cake” both literally and figuratively, a unique feature of the IFPT program is access to other Conestoga College students in programs such as Robotics and Electronics. For example, students recently worked with an Ontario food company to develop an application for a robot that can both “de-pan” cupcakes and put the icing on the pastries with laser-guided precision. Garcia stresses that graduating IFPT students are ready to step right into food processing plants and very quickly become part of the manufacturing team.