June 2018 – Few doubt the success of a company or of an industry crucially depends on the quality of the people engaged with the company or the industry. To venture capitalists, it is a truism: Invest in the people, not the business plan. Because bad people can mess up the best business plans. And if the business plan is not producing success, good people change the business plan.
But how, exactly, does a business or an industry attract, develop and retain the best people? It is, as Churchill said in a different context, “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.”
The industry has tried numerous efforts to improve access to talent, but it is difficult to ascertain the efficacy of these efforts. Jay Pack, former owner and CEO of Standard Fruit and Vegetable Co., remembered his struggles to find good people for his Dallas-based produce company. After contacting Texas A&M, a premier agricultural school, and discovering the lack of familiarity with produce as a career option, Jay and his wife, Ruthie, initiated and funded the Pack Family Career Pathways Fund to bring university students to PMA.
That idea gave birth to dozens of others like it, and the industry has taken countless students through its events. As an homage to Jay and Ruthie, we have always done such a project at The New York Produce Show and Conference and our overseas events. That the students who participate receive excellent value and are most appreciative of the opportunity is no question. That many companies have found good interns and employees is also not in question.
What is not clear, however, is whether these types of efforts improve the talent pool that comprises the industry. Partly this is because students don’t go to these industry/university programs based on random assignment. They must apply and be accepted, so, quite often, these are young people who have family, friends or other connections to the industry.
The schools that participate in these programs are also not chosen at random. They usually have ag or food programs and are in a geographical vicinity to jobs in the industry. Again, it is simply impossible to know what percentage of this doubly self-selected group would have wound up in the industry with or without these programs.
Even if we could somehow know these individuals would not have entered the produce industry but for these programs, it still doesn’t establish that these efforts are creating a more talented industry. It could just show that when industry firms are offered a more convenient way to hire, they select that path rather than a more difficult one.
So, if a company needs 10 entry-level employees, it might normally run ads, attend career fairs, incentivize its employees to provide referrals, etc. Now, because they are exhibiting at a trade show, they may get a chance to meet some great students and hire two of the 10 needed through the programs. So that takes some pressure off the company to find people and, of course, it is a win for the students who get jobs, but does it mean that these efforts actually have resulted in a better-equipped industry? Does the fact that these students go to an industry event during college make them more likely to stay in the industry? We just have almost no data to confirm any of this.
Executive development programs seem likely to have a more definite favorable outcome for the industry as a whole. We don’t have great data here either, but it seems likely that once people are in the industry, they build up expertise and contacts that make it expensive to leave. Of course, many still do leave, whether for personal reasons — a desire to relocate, a desire to have a child, a desire to try something different, etc. — or a financial or business-driven opportunity, but, on the whole the odds of people working in the industry and staying in the industry is higher than getting random people to choose to work in the industry.
The problem with executive education is that the benefit of such education may accrue mostly to the individuals who receive the education, especially if there is a lot of job-hopping in an industry. This is probably not a big problem with most of the programs sponsored by associations and publications – they may have long term benefits, but they are inexpensive enough to provide short-term bang for the buck. But major university programs in executive education can run $50,000 and more, plus substantial leave time. And the conflicting desire to make sure one’s staff is given advanced education while also making sure one’s organization doesn’t spend money that it can’t get a return on, keeps a tension on this investment.
Yet, somehow or other, we wind up with an industry filled with gifted, hardworking, passionate people. Each year, we dedicate the cover story of this issue to recognize 40 young people who are doing great things and, of whom, even greater things are expected in the future. Whatever way we get and retain people, we know we want more people like these. Read the stories of our 40-under-Forty and hope you are lucky enough to hire folks like this. We’ll hope the industry is lucky enough to keep them close for years to come. pb