Claire Miley first became interested in food science almost 15 years ago when she worked as a line operator for General Mills’ cereal in Belvidere, Illinois.
That interest grew and led Miley to the University of Idaho, and now to a job created just for her upon graduation. She will earn a bachelor’s degree in food science from U of I’s College of Agricultural and Life Sciences in May 2019 and immediately start her new career with Darigold.
Finding Her Niche
Miley, 54, grew up in Helena, Montana, where she was an avid swimmer with dreams of one day being an underwater archeologist. Pregnancy during her senior year of high school disrupted those plans. She ended up enrolling in a local college at age 20 with the idea she would major in archeology.
But a year of study made her realize archeology wasn’t the right fit for her. Miley didn’t want to give up on a career in the water, though, so in 1988 she completed an eight-month certification program to become a commercial diver. She moved to Connecticut to work for a nuclear power plant, scraping barnacles off the intake flumes.
“I really had my heart set on being a commercial diver and being out there and having a wonderful, adventurous life, which you really don’t do when you have a child,” Miley said.
Miley worked as a commercial diver for two years before marrying her first husband and giving birth to her second son. The family eventually moved west to Vancouver, Washington, where they welcomed another son and Miley found work as a warehouse manager for a flooring company. After 12 years, the family relocated again — this time to Illinois — and Miley began working for General Mills.
Ensuring Food Quality
The General Mills plant introduced Miley to food manufacturing and quality assurance — an important step in the food chain to ensure consumers are receiving a safe product.
“I think it’s valuable work,” Miley said “I want to keep the food supply safe. No one should lose a baby because of listeria or a cancer survivor shouldn’t die because of food poisoning.”
Miley worked for General Mills for four years until 2008 when she and her husband decided to divorce and Miley moved to Arizona to be closer to her parents. She took a position with the Arizona Canning Company, which produces refried and whole beans and enchilada sauce products, and she again worked in quality assurance and as the plant trainer.
During her time with General Mills and the Arizona Canning Company, Miley was introduced to the method of continuous improvement, which identifies opportunities for streamlining work and reducing waste by improving the efficiency and effectiveness of a process.
“The principal of continuous improvement makes so much sense to me — whatever process you are doing, doing it in the most efficient way you can and most consistent way and in food manufacturing, the safest way,” Miley said. “I saw how big a difference it could make, not just for the employees working the line, but what a better consistency of product you are getting out of the other end. The way food manufacturing works, that’s what it’s all about.”
Discovering U of I
Miley remarried in 2011 and decided in 2014 that she needed to complete a bachelor’s degree in order to advance any further in her career. She began looking for food science programs in the Northwest that were cost-effective and decided on U of I — without ever stepping foot on campus or in Moscow.
“The University of Idaho had everything I wanted,” Miley said. “I liked the pictures of campus and talked to people who had been to Moscow and liked it. It was a leap of faith.”
Miley’s husband Jim was already retired but took a job with the Moscow Food Co-op in order to support Miley and help pay for tuition.
A December 2018 interview with Darigold, which was on the U of I campus interviewing for their supervisor internship positions, proved fortuitous. After discovering her experience and interest in continuous improvement, the company decided to create a new position for Miley. She will start as a graduate trainee in May at the Jerome and Bozeman, Montana, plants.
“They are in the process of implementing continuous improvement with their plants,” she said. “Smaller plants with less employees, it’s hard for them to have time to do their job and implement this system. My job is to go into these smaller plants and be whatever support they need depending on where they are in the process. A lot of standard operating procedure writing, training and setting up databases.”
Miley admits she was nervous when she first enrolled at U of I because of her previous experiences as a student.
“It was hard, I’m still not a good student,” she said. “I had to work at it. There was not a class that was a walk for me. I’m very thankful to classmates who have helped me through, giving me better study habits and being patient with me.”
She also credits the faculty in the U of I/Washington State University School of Food Science for their willingness to help her learn.
“They are great instructors and want students to succeed and understand what they are teaching,” she said. “They care about their students.”
While her path to a university education was anything but traditional, Miley is happy with where she ended up.
“We have this vision in our heads of this person we should be or want to be and then things happen in life and you don’t get there, you get stuck in that mindset of maybe I’m not good enough,” she said. “When you get pregnant when you’re a senior in high school, you’ve got a proven record of not making great choices. But, at 54, I think I’m finally pretty happy with who I am.”
Published in April 2019