Summit Academy OIC has teamed up with a nonprofit and some of the region's largest food companies to offer a new pilot program that will train workers to help fill the labor shortage in food manufacturing.

At the same time, the program's leaders hope to expose more Summit students — who are often low income and people of color facing various obstacles — to career pathways in the food industry.

The partnership is being spearheaded by 4 Access Partners (4AP), a recently formed Twin Cities nonprofit with connections to General Mills, Cargill, Second Harvest Heartland, Kowalski's Markets and other local companies that are participating in the program.

Summit has provided job training programs in north Minneapolis for more than two decades.

The seven-week food manufacturing program is funded by Summit and 4AP and is free for students. The first course starts at the end of this month and may run several times a year. It aims to prepare workers for entry-level jobs that pay at least $20 an hour and include benefits.

"There is a great need," said John Mendesh, a co-founder of 4AP and a retired General Mills executive. "Food companies have gobs of openings."

He added that these jobs have lots of potential for advancement and can lead to a fulfilling career.

"Those of us that have benefited greatly from participating in the food industry believe that the industry is terrific for economic development," he said. "It can be meaningful for families and communities."

Summit is recruiting students for the program, which will also provide the job readiness component of the training such as math, computer and interviewing skills.

4AP will supply the food industry expertise in the classroom with volunteer instructors recruited from its partner food companies. The course will also include on-site visits to food manufacturing operations around the Twin Cities so students can get a firsthand look at those jobs.

Miriam Williams, Summit's chief academic officer, said this program is the first customized training initiative for Summit.

"The design of it has been unique," she said. "We've not really had this level of engagement from industry folks the way that we have with this program."

It's also a shorter program compared to Summit's other 20-week accredited vocational training programs in construction, information technology and medical administrative assistant.

She added that most people might think of a job in food manufacturing as just working on a line. But the program will show students that it can lead to much more than that.

"A $20 an hour job that leads to a career for you, I think that's a game changer," she said.

The General Mills plant in Chanhassen that makes scones, cinnamon rolls, cookies and other baked goods, often has about 15 to 30 job openings for food production technicians, said human resources manager Meghan Hannigan.

Those jobs start at $24.21 an hour, with an extra dollar an hour for those who work the night shift.

General Mills competes with other employers in the metro area who are also vying for workers in a tight labor market. And while turnover has been fairly low, Hannigan said entry-level positions often open up as employees in those positions move up within the company.

Candidates don't have to have prior food manufacturing experience. Many of its workers come from different professions such as nursing and teaching.

She's excited about the Summit program to introduce more people to the industry who may not be familiar with it or who might assume they're not eligible for the jobs. They will be especially compelling candidates after going through the training, she added.

"There's a bunch of different talent pipelines that we haven't had the ability to kind of crack or tap into yet," she said. "That ability to bring in extra talent is huge."

Mendesh said he hopes students who go through the program end up staying in the industry, leading to higher retention, because they'll have a better sense of what they're walking into.

He loosely modeled 4AP after another Twin Cities nonprofit, Partners in Food Solutions, that he helped start 15 years ago, which pairs food entrepreneurs in Africa with scientists and food experts at U.S. food companies.

Similarly, 4AP is working with food entrepreneurs in the Twin Cities who are women and people of color to help connect them to experts, capital and training. The Summit program is an offshoot of its focus on the latter.

Mendesh hopes to have a couple dozen students in each Summit food manufacturing class.