When Arrianna Zirbes began her career as a quality control specialist in a microbiological lab at Nestlé Nutrition in Eau Claire in 2012, the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire graduate didn't have to look far to find another Blugold.
With more than 70 UW-Eau Claire alumni working at the Nestlé facility in Eau Claire, including 22 chemistry graduates, Blugolds make up almost half of the employees in Nestlé's Eau Claire laboratories.
"Nestlé sounded like a really good fit for what I wanted to do with my career," said Zirbes, who graduated in 2012 with a bachelor of science degree in biochemistry and molecular biology. "I love science and I knew I wanted to continue working and learning in that field. I also wanted to stay in Eau Claire; it's a beautiful city and I like the feeling here. Being able to find a job in Eau Claire in my field right out of college was great."
Having a pool of highly qualified candidates like Zirbes to draw from has been critical to Nestlé Nutrition's success as the Eau Claire facility has grown its workforce in recent years, said Andrew Abrahamson, a 1986 UW-Eau Claire chemistry graduate who manages the operations of the chemical, physical and microbiological laboratories at Nestlé in Eau Claire.
Since January 2012 he has hired 35 new employees — most of them UW-Eau Claire graduates, said Abrahamson, who was hired by Nestlé in 1988 to start up the company's original facility in Eau Claire.
"UW-Eau Claire is very rigorous in its expectations of their students, so there's a great deal of comfort when we hire a student or graduate," Abrahamson said. "I can trust that they're going to bring the skills we need in our laboratory. The high quality of scientific expertise these individuals have brought into entry-level openings within our facilities has been a key driver in raising the technical bench strength within the company.
"We are a very well-respected laboratory within the Nestlé world, and the rapidity with which these graduates have been able to come in and integrate themselves into our operation here has kept our laboratory maintaining at a high level. Our experience with the high-caliber graduates produced by the UW-Eau Claire chemistry department has been extremely positive, and they have proven to be invaluable in contributing to the success of Nestlé Nutrition."
The successful job placement of UW-Eau Claire chemistry students at a company such as Nestlé means the department and university as a whole are teaching students the skills they need to "hit the ground running in their careers," said Dr. Michael Carney, a professor of chemistry and associate vice chancellor for curriculum, internationalization and immersion.
"We're pushing students out of their comfort zones, but we're also giving them the support they need to succeed," Carney said. "We are sending out students who can contribute right away to the economic development of our state. The link we have established with Nestlé, and the growing number of chemistry graduates successfully employed there, proves that we are preparing students to be successful and productive workers as soon as they enter the workforce."
The Nestlé facility in Eau Claire produces infant formula and medical foods that are tested for quality and nutrition in the microbiological lab. Zirbes and her fellow chemists perform laboratory tests on a certain percentage of each batch of product manufactured at the plant to ensure nutritional values match the claims on the product labels. They also test each product for biological consistency and bacterial contamination, as well as any other factors that may be harmful to consumers.
The experience she gained conducting research as an undergraduate student gave her the confidence she needed to accept a job at the world's leading nutrition, health and wellness company, Zirbes said.
"UW-Eau Claire tries to get the most out of their science students through research opportunities," Zirbes said. "A lot of the lab techniques I learned while conducting research are the same techniques we use in the microbiological lab at Nestlé. The professors I had were great and taught the information and concepts in a way that made sense. I felt like I understood what I was learning instead of just memorizing it for a test and forgetting about it. That retention has helped me apply my education and knowledge to what I do at my job."
The chemistry department provides a detailed and rigorous curriculum in general chemistry knowledge and lab work so students gain the knowledge and skills they need to be productive in the workforce, Carney said. The liberal arts education provided at UW-Eau Claire also encourages students to think creatively, a skill set that compliments the analytical thinking necessary in chemistry work, he said.
"We try to challenge students and push them to reach their potential," Carney said. "That may include embedding a research experience in a class where we don't know the answer to the problem and students have to come up with a plan to find it. They're not following a cookbook recipe so they have to think on their feet and develop a procedure for problem-solving, which is very much what they would be asked to do in the workplace."
Tom Jones, a quality control specialist at Nestlé, is a 2010 UW-Eau Claire chemistry alumnus who worked closely with Carney on research as an undergraduate student. Carney was instrumental in his success as a student and in his preparation for the workplace, Jones said.
"I started working on research with Dr. Carney during my second semester, and was grateful to have his tutelage and guidance throughout my undergraduate experience," Jones said. "The lab work and research opportunities were influential in the comfort and confidence I developed in my skills. Having the freedom to explore while in a lab conducting research helped me feel comfortable in that setting and it prepared me for lab work in a corporate environment."
As a quality control specialist, Jones is responsible for testing each product for the accurate amounts of vitamin A and E. The testing covers a wide and varied range of techniques and procedures, and uses all of the skills he learned in the labs at UW-Eau Claire, he said.
Jones says he feels fortunate that UW-Eau Claire helped him gain the knowledge and skills he needed to find challenging and satisfying work in the Chippewa Valley.
"Working at Nestlé is definitely a great opportunity for chemistry graduates," Jones said. "It's one of the few places in the area that provide this kind of opportunity. My wife and I have a home here and she's originally from this area, so it was important to us to stay local. Working at Nestlé is a really good fit for me and for my skills, and it's a great paying job with benefits."
Most UW-Eau Claire chemistry graduates who join Nestlé work first in its analytical chemistry laboratory, Abrahamson said, noting that some alumni move into leadership positions or into technical specialist positions within the company.
Nestle also hires current students in intern and temporary positions in various departments of the facility, Abrahamson said.
"The mutual proximity shared by UW-Eau Claire has provided the opportunity for student interns to gain valuable experience with Nestlé," Abrahamson said. "Temporary positions in quality control, quality assurance and technical services have been capably filled by UW-Eau Claire chemistry students over the years."
Anna Dahl, who graduated from UW-Eau Claire in 2005 with a bachelor of science degree in chemistry with a business emphasis, started her career with Nestlé as an intern during her senior year. She was hired permanently in a leadership position after she graduated.
Now an ingredient manager, Dahl oversees all of the ingredients used for the Nestlé Nutrition and Nestlé Health Science products at the Eau Claire facility, four outside facilities and numerous co-manufacturers. She said the combination of chemistry and business courses she took at UW-Eau Claire prepared her well for her leadership position at Nestlé.
"I liked the merger of the two disciplines because on one side you have the technical and analytical aspect, and on the other you have a more leadership and interactive aspect," Dahl said. "I think that blend has helped me with my position here. I have the technical knowledge needed to work with our ingredient experts, who are technically knowledgeable about the products, but I also can communicate and pass along information in a way that those who are in less technical positions will understand. I do a lot of training, so I need to effectively communicate information across varied groups of people. I've been able to take exactly what I have learned during college and really apply it in my job. That's been very helpful for me to be successful in my career."
One current UW-Eau Claire student is working as a temporary employee in the technical services department at Nestlé in Eau Claire.
Senior chemistry major Sarah Gross, Holmen, began working in the lab testing trial samples for pH balance, viscosity and how well the samples hold up over time. She then moved into a technical services position building material dossiers.
Gross, who has worked for Nestlé for a year, said the time management skills, organizational skills and chemistry expertise she learned at UW-Eau Claire are helping her succeed at Nestlé.
"I typically work on multiple projects at once at Nestlé, so the skills I learned while managing multiple classes and activities in school has been valuable," Gross said. "I'm able to juggle multiple responsibilities, which is beneficial in my role here, where I often help with a lot of side projects. Right now, I'm taking a quantitative analysis class that is focused on being precise in laboratory analysis. Our percent errors have to be within 0.5 percent, meaning you have to be perfect every time. That has helped me with lab work at Nestlé because analytical chemists have to be precise in their research."
Gross, who will graduate in 2015, said her experience at Nestle has reinforced her interest in finding a job in a laboratory setting.
"I feel very prepared to start my career," Gross said. "I am ready to go out into the world and use my skills."