Becoming a Food Operator: Careers, Salary Info & Job Description

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What are the pros and cons of a career as a food operator? Get real job descriptions, career prospects and salary info to see if becoming a food operator is right for you.
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Pros and Cons of a Career as a Food Processing Operator

Food processing operators, as food operators are usually called, run the equipment that processes ingredients used to manufacture food products. While becoming a food processing operator can be a solid career choice, you should take a look at all the pros and cons to determine if it is the career for you.

Pros of a Career as a Food Processing Operator
High school diploma or equivalent enough for many jobs*
On-the-job training is usually all that's required*
High employment rates in most states*
Stable work hours*

Cons of a Career as a Food Processing Operator
May work in loud, cold or hot conditions*
Demand for workers expected to be stagnant (1 percent growth 2014-2024)*
Risk of injury*
Low salary (about $27,590 median)*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Career Information

Job Description

Food processing operators work for food manufacturers and oversee the equipment that processes ingredients into the final products. Depending on their part in the production process, they prepare machinery for use, weigh ingredients and mix them. They monitor the machinery for malfunction, which they report promptly to supervisors. They may inspect the final products and assemble orders.

Several types of food processing operators exist. Batchmakers work in plants that produce baked goods, tortillas and pasta. They mix ingredients, load dough into ovens or operate pasta or tortilla making machines. Food cooking machine operators and tenders supervise the cooking process of many types of foods.

A food processing plant is usually loud and can be hot or cold, depending on what is produced. Workers risk injury from the machinery, ovens and deep fat fryers. Food processing operators must be knowledgeable about food safety standards and sanitation regulations and must maintain clean work areas.

Career Prospects

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) said employment of food and tobacco processing workers was expected to be only two percent, far below the average across all occupations, from 2014-2024, with employment of food cooking machine operators and tenders growing by one percent and employment of batchmakers to have no growth.

The BLS noted that automation will eliminate some jobs in the food processing industry, but international trade, population growth and an unceasing demand for convenience foods means there will always be jobs in the industry. Job opportunities should be greatest in rural areas or in small cities where large manufacturing plants are located, the BLS noted.

Salary Info

The median annual salary for food batchmakers was about $26,770 in May 2014, the BLS reported. The lowest paid ten percent made less than $18,100 and the highest paid ten percent made more than $43,880, according to the BLS.

The median annual salary for food cooking machine operators and tenders was about $27,590 in May 2014, the BLS said. The lowest paid ten percent made less than $18,250 and the highest paid ten percent made more than $44,040, according to the BLS.

Career Skills and Requirements

You will probably need a high school diploma or a GED to get a job as a food processing worker, although the BLS says about a fourth of the people in this field don't have them. As the machinery has become more complex, math and reading skills are more important than in the past. Many employers prefer to hire people with prior manufacturing experience, but any work that shows physical stamina, such as construction, may be acceptable. Line workers need a few days or weeks of on-the-job training, while workers who maintain and calibrate the machinery require specialized training.

Useful Skills

A food processing operator should have some mechanical ability in order to troubleshoot problems and make minor fixes on the machines in the factory. You'll be better at the job if you have the ability to concentrate and a good eye for detail. Speed and stamina are also important in this fast-paced job.

What Employers Want

Job postings for food processing operators generally emphasize the stamina that is required. Most call for someone who is fluent in English and who has several years of work experience. Here's a sampling of job postings from real employers in March 2012:

  • A manufacturer in New York was looking for people to work the 6 a.m.-2:30 p.m. or 6 p.m.-2:30 a.m. shift, with overtime available. The posting emphasized that this was strenuous work in a plant cooled to 45 degrees. After a probationary period, the worker could enter the trade union, with regular raises and benefits. One benefit was free lunches in the company cafeteria.
  • In Illinois, a food processor needed workers with manufacturing experience, preferably in the confectionary industry. They must be certified to drive a forklift. Working weekends and overtime was mandatory, the posting noted.
  • A plant in Kentucky needed workers who could handle many facets of a meat product operation including transferring cooked meats from the cook and chill process and removing rejected items from the machine. The ability to repetitively move and lift up to 50 pounds was required. The workplace was refrigerated.

How to Stand Out in the Field

Showing that you're trustworthy, hard working and a team player may be the best way to advance in this field. Most food processors promote from within instead of hiring new employees, according to the BLS. Job postings show that employers want managers who can speak English and Spanish and who have basic computer skills, so developing that knowledge might put you ahead.

Earn a Degree

Although this occupation doesn't have an education requirement, getting a degree can help you advance to a management position. Some management job postings call for an associate's degree in food science, while others want a bachelor's degree. The BLS says you might need a degree in engineering or another form of science if you want to calibrate and adjust machinery.

Other Careers to Consider

Baker

A similar career, with delicious aromas as a fringe benefit, is as a baker. You might work in a supermarket or independent bakery or in a large commercial operation turning out pastries and breads. Many bakery workers have less than a high school education, although some have diplomas from vocational or culinary schools. Others train through apprenticeship programs. The median annual salary for bakers in May 2011 was about $23,000, according to the BLS. The BLS predicted about two percent job growth for bakers from 2010-2020.

Slaughterer or Meat Packer

If you like the food processing industry and don't mind blood and extreme working conditions, perhaps a career as a slaughterer or a meat packer would interest you. Slaughterers and meat packers kill animals and cut the meat into smaller portions. They may work in a slaughtering yard or inside a processing plant. The temperatures in the yard may be very hot in the summer and cold in winter. These occupations don't require any formal education; most people are trained on the job. The median annual salary for slaughterers and meat packers was a little more than $23,000 in May 2011. Jobs in this occupation were predicted to increase by about eight percent from 2010-2020, the BLS reported.

Construction Equipment Operator

If you like working with machinery, don't mind working outdoors and want to make a larger salary in a growing field, becoming a construction equipment operator is an option. You'll probably need a high school diploma or GED certificate and some training through the military, a formal apprenticeship or a private trade school. The median annual salary for a construction equipment operator was about $42,000 as of May 2011, the BLS reported. The BLS predicted that jobs for construction equipment operators would grow by about 23% from 2010-2020, faster than the average for all occupations.

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