WASHINGTON -- Leadership comes at all levels of an organization. The future of the dairy industry and our ability to remain globally competitive depends on how we develop the workforce of the future, cultivate the next generation of leaders, empower and support diversity in leadership roles and solve our nation’s immigration crisis. 

IDFA is doing its part every day to make headway on these substantial issues. On leadership development, this fall we welcomed the fourth class of emerging leaders in IDFA’s NextGen Leadership Program, a signature initiative in our People Strategy. It is an incredible group selected based on their experience and scope of responsibility within their organizations. They represent the broad diversity of people and businesses across the dairy supply chain, and we are confident they – alongside dozens of leaders from previous NextGen Leadership classes – will propel our industry to bigger and better things. 


There is no magic answer for workforce challenges facing dairy and food manufacturing, but it does demonstrate a great urgency to put people at the center of everything we do. From IDFA’s perspective, we want to ensure the industry is preparing leaders at every level to step up.  The NextGen program is designed to support, guide, and prepare mid- to senior-level dairy industry professionals who are ready to take the next step in their leadership journey. The year-long program equips them to build and expand relationships with their peers, hone leadership skills and acquire advanced advocacy skills for the dairy industry. 

This is true for individuals at every level of our organizations. I hear from IDFA members frequently about talent. They are focused on leadership development within their organizations, succession planning, identifying and retaining high potentials, recruitment and retainment of new talent. That’s why IDFA has developed its People Strategy to share knowledge, training and networking opportunities pertaining to human resources and building a workforce for the future.

Dairy industry leaders must put plans and personnel in place to attract and retain a younger, skilled and more inclusive workforce than ever before. That means all of us must engage in and support leadership development at all levels and create new opportunities for employees to gain new skills and feel valued and appreciated at their jobs. That is why with every young leader I meet, I encourage them to get involved in IDFA committees and task forces and engage in IDFA’s professional communities such as Women in Dairy, the Dairy Tech and Innovation Network, HR Leaders in Dairy, the Dairy Diversity Coalition and many more. Through our words and actions, IDFA is making it a priority to develop future leaders for our industry who can manage disruption, advocate for sound policy and lead with integrity.


To that end, a focus of this year’s NextGen program will be immigration reform. After years of stops and starts and little progress, I believe that our nation’s immigration policy will be comprehensively reformed in the next four years as political parties find common ground on securing the border while also implementing an orderly process to legally immigrate. 

The US dairy industry supports nearly 3 million American jobs that generate more than $42 billion in direct wages. Yet it faces mounting challenges in attracting and retaining an adequate workforce to manage farms and manufacturing operations year-round. With perishable milk and dairy products, labor shortages aren’t just an inconvenience; they’re a threat to business viability. Dairy’s unique labor needs require a federal solution to ensure a reliable workforce at the farm and processing plant alike.

 Our business community – food and agriculture in particular – is at a breaking point with workforce challenges and if we want to remain global leaders, we need a stable workforce. With births declining and baby boomers retiring, we just don’t have enough workers, making immigration reform essential for our economy to grow. 

I am confident that with ongoing efforts like IDFA’s People Strategy, the NextGen Leadership Program, and focused advocacy to push Congress on immigration reform, we can ease our workforce challenges and lead our industry to new heights.

Michael Dykes is the president and chief executive officer of the International Dairy Foods Association. The International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA), based in Washington, DC, represents the nation’s dairy manufacturing and marketing industry, which supports more than 3 million jobs.