Industry’s Future In Today’s Classrooms

Recruiting the right people with talent, energy and new ideas is arguably the greatest challenge facing the produce industry — no matter what segment of the business you’re in. As important as associations are in developing our industry’s leadership ranks, they also must serve as magnets to attract new blood.

Jim Prevor’s February Comments and Analysis column got me thinking about the 1998 PMA FreshTrack research conducted by Professor Ed McLaughlin and his colleagues at Cornell. Jim wrote: “Gathering a group of consumers and asking them questions is easy; knowing what their answers mean and what weight to give those answers is the hard part.”

The connection to the FreshTrack study?

In 1998, FreshTrack focused on people, specifically recruitment and retention practices in the produce industry. Reading Jim’s column, I recalled how the Cornell researchers succinctly analyzed and distilled the reams of data in their research, especially this one bullet point: “Produce companies report far less difficulty retaining their employees than they do in recruiting them. This suggests that produce industry careers may be more challenging and satisfying once experienced (stress added) than they appear…”

The homegrown talent who built this industry frequently came through the ranks by first working in our fields, kitchens and store aisles. But we live in a different produce world from that of just a decade ago. To get the innovation that will bring consumers more of the products they want does demand different skill sets. And all the corporate vision and strategy in the world count for little, as Jim Collins stressed in his wonderful study, Good to Great if you don’t first get “the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, and the right people in the right seats.”

The fact is that our industry has such a terrific opportunity to attract the best and the brightest talent to swell our future leadership ranks. We just haven’t done a good job of selling our story — until now.

For the past two years, the vision and support of Jay and Ruthie Pack has given PMA the tools to reach out to the top food marketing colleges in the United States. Bringing faculty and students to PMA’s Fresh Summit, we’ve shown them the immensely challenging and satisfying opportunities that exist in the ranks of member companies — from shipper to retailer.

Here’s what our research says about the students’ experience of the produce and floral world opening before their eyes at Fresh Summit: “Something I’ll never forget,” “incredible,” “amazing,” “priceless,” “fantastic.” How many programs do we run that get a 5 out of 5 rating? Small wonder that a number of them have already taken positions with leading member companies across the produce supply chain.

As for the industry leaders who introduce them to the wonderful opportunities our businesses have to offer the best and the brightest, here’s what they have to say of the experience: “I got more out of this than I gave,” “We have a lot of talented young people who are great fits for our industry,” “This program raises the bar for our industry, “feeds the future with smart and talented students that otherwise would not have this access to us or us to them.”

Decades from now, I believe we’ll look back at this initial success of the Pack Family/PMA Career Pathways Fund as the tipping point in our industry’s commitment to get serious about selling itself as a career of choice. Its success already led PMA leaders to honor the late Joe Nucci by creating the Nucci Scholarship for Culinary Innovation, a program that will bring outstanding students and faculty from the Culinary Institute of America to experience PMA’s Foodservice Conference in Monterey starting this July.

Bringing top students and faculty face-to-face with industry is a critical first step. And it is aided by innovative programs like Produce Business’ 40 Under Forty, which has the side benefit of showing students how young people can truly make a difference in our industry.

Now I look to the creation of the new PMA Education Foundation as the surest sign that this industry intends to put its money where its mouth is when it comes to attracting future talent, to defining requisite competencies for key positions, and to identify achievements in those skills. This is the heavy lifting we need to create the clear pathways for those who want to get into our industry as well as those already in it. Outreach to colleges, not just in the United States but around the world, is a key component in these efforts.

PMA’s Executive Committee just pledged $500,000 to get the new Foundation off to a running start. The starting line lies ahead this summer, once all the requisite IRS filings for the foundation are completed. After that, we’ve got a race ahead of us. It’s a race to find the talent, define and recognize the skills needed to succeed in our businesses, and show that the produce industry means business when it comes to its greatest asset — its people.

There are many ways for us individually and collectively to attract and retain the talent we need to grow our businesses in the decades ahead. But above all, we need to believe in ourselves and our ability to offer so much to the best and the brightest.