Sustaining Opportunities

The ethanol industry provides young people with wealth of job opportunities. This article in the June print edition of Ethanol Producer Magazine profiles the career paths of several relative newcomers.
By Ann Bailey | May 30, 2017

Nineteen-year-old Marcus Niehaus sees a future in the ethanol industry. The Southeastern Illinois College student said he wants to make a difference in the world and believes working in the biofuels business is a way he can do that.

“I am an outdoors person. I love the environment and want to see it preserved and not destroyed,” Niehaus says. Besides being environmentally friendly, the alternative energy industry is made up of the kind of people Niehaus would like to have as co-workers, he says. “They seem to always be in a good mood and are well taken care of by the company.” Meanwhile, working in an ethanol plant would offer him the opportunity to do the kind of hands-on labor he enjoys. “I like being able to get a feel of what I am working on to have a better understanding of how it works,” Niehaus says. 

Niehaus plans to finish his associate degree in biofuels at Southeast Illinois College in Harrisburg in Spring 2018 and then hopes to land a job as an ethanol plant technician. However, he is willing to accept another position if a technician job is not available. “I would take any job they would offer to get my foot in the door and acquire some experience watching others.”

Flexibility, Hard Work
Willingness to work at a variety of ethanol plant jobs and in various positions were key to the success of Ryan Carter, the 35-year-old general manager of Tharaldson Ethanol in Casselton, North Dakota. Carter’s work took him to plants across the United States and to Canada before Casselton, where he’s been the past six years. “I’ve taken advancement steps in my career by moving to South Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa, Indiana and New York,” Carter says. “Now I’ve been able to have the opportunity to move back to North Dakota and advance my career working for a very well-known family, the (Gary) Tharaldson Ethanol family.”

Moving up the industry ladder isn’t unique to Carter, he notes. “Some of the smartest people I have had the honor of working with don’t have a degree, but they have an interest in something they love and that has helped them to grow and to learn and has helped them move up within the company management.”

Working in the ethanol industry was a childhood dream for Carter, a Hettinger, North Dakota, native. “My oldest brother, Jason, has been in the ethanol industry for 25 years, so he started in the industry when I was 10 years old. I always wanted to kind of follow in his footsteps,” Carter says, recalling that he used visit Jason at the DENCO plant in Morris, Minnesota. After Ryan graduated from Hettinger High school in 2000, he moved to Rosholt, South Dakota, where he worked for a short time as a cook operator at Tri-State Ethanol. After an explosion at the plant forced the company to declare bankruptcy, Carter moved to Marcus, Iowa, and worked as a shift supervisor for Little Sioux Corn Processors. A few years later, ICM offered Carter a position starting up ethanol plants across the United States and Canada. “I have had a part in starting up 40 to 50 plants. I would go there for a few weeks and start up the next plant,” Carter says.

All along the way, Carter has been mentored and supported by ethanol industry colleagues, he says. “If one plant needs help, we’re there to answer a question. It’s kind of a big family that keeps moving forward.” Besides the camaraderie in the industry, Carter also enjoys working for an industry he can feel pride in, he says. “We’re doing good for the environment, we do a lot for the farmer, for the communities that each plant is located in. [Ethanol] is an interesting, American-made product. We’re not depending on foreign oil or foreign companies to do what we do.”

At Adkins Energy LLC in Rockford, Illinois, biofuels operations manager Tim Schneiderman enjoys the challenges of continuously seeking to improve plant efficiency. Schneiderman, 38, does the certificate of analysis for each of the ethanol batches produced during his shift. He also operates the biodiesel plant and does the required testing. Schneiderman, who has worked in the industry for nearly 13 years, was employed previously at a nursing home and a food manufacturing and packaging plant. After he accepted the position at Adkins, he took biofuels classes at Southeastern Illinois College to learn more about the industry. He plans to continue working for Adkins Energy. “It’s one of the best companies in the area to work for, with good pay, in an industry that’s going to be around for years to come.” Meanwhile, he likes the rural area in which he lives. “It’s where I was born and raised.”

Communication Challenge
Renee Loesche is very aware of the ethanol industry’s workforce challenge as director of curriculum and training in the Building Illinois’ Bio-economy program at Southeastern Illinois College. She believes getting the word out about the opportunities in the biofuels industry will help it attract the employees it needs to fill the positions that are open now and will open as the industry workforce ages.

“What I’m seeing is that there are people out there who can do the work. The talent is out there,” Loesche says. The challenge is matching up those talented people with the job openings at the plants, she says. The plants’ managers need to let young people know that “we’re here and we need people,” she says. Partnering with local community colleges that have biofuels programs is a good way to find plant workers, Loesch says. Plants also can attract young workers by offering internships, hosting plant tours for community college biofuels program students and sponsoring scholarships, she suggests. “Scholarships that are as little as $250 can make a difference,” she says.

Jill Brun, a 2013 graduate of Southeast Community College in Milford, Nebraska, majored in the energy generation program, focusing on biofuels energy. Brun, a lab manager at Flint Hills Resources ethanol plant in Fairmont, Nebraska, wanted to work in the ethanol industry because she believes that traditional energy sources can have a detrimental impact on the environment and that there’s an “urgent and obvious need for alternative forms of fuel and energy.” In her job as lab manager, Brun ensures that quality compliance measures are met on all final products produced at the plant. “I manage the laboratory quality control program and laboratory instrument performance. I’m responsible for reviewing all processes and fermentation data daily and I then can recommend adjustments or changes that will lead to increased efficiency and plant profitability. The ethanol industry is ever-evolving and unexpected issues arise each and every day. I enjoy the challenge of working through these problems, taking the necessary risks to find a solution, and having the ability to learn something new each day; it is a very fulfilling and rewarding experience,” Brun says. She also enjoys working with the other employees in the rural ethanol plant. “I know and have built a good relationship with every person at the site; you never pass by somebody and don’t say ‘Hello.’ It’s a great feeling to go to work and be surrounded by people that you care about and who care about you.”

Wide Variety
Besides offering job opportunities for students who want to do hands-on work at ethanol plants, the renewable fuels industry also has openings for men and women who want to work on the business side of the company. Ellie Antova, global business manager for ICM, is responsible for furthering the company’s technology offerings around the world. A former aerospace industry business professional, Antova, now 32, already had a bachelor’s degree in marketing and master’s degrees in business administration and international economics when she accepted a position five years ago as business analysis manager at ICM. Shortly after Antova was hired, she enrolled in the biofuels program at Southeastern Illinois College and received a certificate in Biofuels Technology and Sustainability. “This program provided an academic foundation to the ethanol industry I was trying to navigate through,” Antova says. Initially, her job at ICM was developing an international business intelligence support system and managing ICM international trade compliance. It has evolved into a strategic planning and trade development role, she says. “My responsibilities include growing ICM’s global business initiatives through new foreign market entry, sales approach, proposal development, foreign office establishment, finance facilitation and analysis. I joined ICM for the opportunity to assist in the development of our international efforts and promote ethanol outside the United States.”
Antova’s office is in a semi-rural area which gives it a small-town feel, but near the large city of Wichita, which has big city conveniences, she says. She plans to continue her career in the ethanol industry, which, she says, has opportunities at various divisions and various levels.

Carter, of Tharaldson, also plans to be in the ethanol industry for the long haul. “My vision is to stay in this industry for the rest of my career and to stay with Tharaldson at this plant. I want to finish my career at this facility working at the Tharaldson ethanol plant. If it were up to me, I would love to see my children even pursuing something in this industry.”

Niehaus hopes to finish his career at the ethanol plant where he begins his career in the industry. “I would like to have room to grow in that company and exceed expectations for the company’s goals,” he says. Working at an ethanol plant in a rural area would be ideal. “I have lived in a rural area all of my life. I enjoy being outside and having room to perform outside tasks. I want to live in a rural area for the rest of my life, but will take a job in a city and just live outside the city in a rural environment.”
Antova believes that the ethanol industry has a lot to offer young people, wherever they may be located.  “I would encourage college students to investigate the opportunities in this growing industry.”

Author: Ann Bailey
Freelance Journalist
[email protected]