Pet food industry-academic partnership key to future workforce

As pet ownership continues to rise, the pet food industry must work with academia to recruit new talent.

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The commercial pet food industry has come a long way over the past 60 years, and as the trend of pet humanization continues to bring pets into our homes, the industry will be challenged to recruit young professionals to fill a variety of jobs that will become available in order to keep up with the growing demand. To do so, it is vital that the pet food industry and academia work together to find talented millennials to replace retiring baby boomers as well as fill newly created jobs.

This was the goal of the discussion session, “A call to action: Building your petfood future and workforce through industry-academic partnerships,” held on April 29 at Petfood Forum 2015. The panel, moderated by Dr. Greg Aldrich, research associate professor at Kansas State University (KSU) and president of Pet Food Ingredients & Technology, included Lafe Bailey, co-CEO and president of sales and business development at Wenger; Mary Ellen Barkley, assistant director, Career and Employment Services at KSU; Ben Bowen, executive director of global quality and customer laboratory services, Kemin; Dr. Rick Shields, executive vice president of technical services, Simmons Pet Food; and Dr. Jerrod Kersey, director of scientific and regulatory affairs, Mars Petcare US.


Dr. Greg Aldrich moderated a panel on helping the pet food industry and academia work together to ensure the industry's future at Petfood Forum 2015.

According to Dr. Aldrich, in order to keep up with the industry’s growing demand, one pet food company will need to hire 20,000 workers in the next 10 years. Millenials will be needed to fulfill a wide variety from positions–everything from nutritionists and R&D to pet care takers and skilled trades.

One challenge for pet food companies recruiting these new graduates is that there is currently no professional pet food industry organization for students, according to Dr. Shields. So, to find such diverse talent, pet food companies must look not only within the industry, but also in other industries such as culinary and manufacturing. Dr. Kersey says that it is not always necessary that graduates who are looking for jobs in the pet food industry have related degrees, but that their skillset, experience and extracurricular activities align with what the company is looking for. 

Barkley says that the most important recruiting tool for pet food companies looking to hire new graduates is that they physically have a presence on the university campus. She advised pet food companies to not just come to the campus once to meet with students, but to continue coming back and following up with students as they progress through their studies. Bailey agreed that this was a useful tactic and went a step further to say that Wenger partners with local high schools to begin stimulating students even earlier to pursue R&D careers in the pet food industry. The pet food industry needs to “make science fun,” Kersey said, in order to get students interested in pursuing these types of careers and ensure that the industry can keep up with future demand. 

Another option, Barkley says, is that many universities, including KSU, have a centralized career services department. Employers in the pet food industry can reach out to these departments to find the diverse talent they are looking for to fill job openings. Other methods she suggested for the industry to recruit young university graduates are attending career fairs on campus and promoting jobs online on social media sites and alumni networks. 


A panel of pet food industry members agreed that the industry must work with academia to fill jobs and meet future demand.

And for students looking for jobs in the pet food industry? All panelists agreed that it never hurts for a student, who may be graduating with a degree in a field of study that they don’t think is directly related to the pet food industry job they’re looking to pursue, to apply for the position anyways. Often times, the panelists said, other factors on a student’s resume–notably their passion for pets–may make them more of a fit for the position than they realized, or students may find other pet food industry positions that suit their unique skillset but they may not have initially thought of. 

“Be willing to take the risk and go out there,” Dr. Shields advised.

Petfood Forum was held April 27-29 in Kansas City, Missouri, USA, and attracted more than 2,000 professionals from the pet food industry.

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