There are 60,000 new job openings in agriculture each year in the United States, but there are only 35,000 graduates available to fill them, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Together with our members, Western Growers (WG) is trying to fill the workforce gap by investing in the ag leaders of the future, today.
In the past decade, WG has launched a series of programs aimed at providing youth with the knowledge and tools needed to be successful in their future careers. WG is now revamping the older programs, creating new ones and linking them together to help mold the future workforce of ag.
“Oftentimes, we are so busy with the present that we forget to invest in the future. We can no longer afford to have that luxury,” said Tom Nassif, WG president & CEO. “As ag advances and looks toward technology to help solve issues such as the dire labor shortage, we need highly-intelligent and enthusiastic young professionals to bring the industry to the next level.”
WG is focused on providing resources and opportunities to students interested in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) and encouraging them to apply their passion for STEM toward a career in ag. Technology will continue to be crucial in helping ag remain viable; the need for skills like computer science—especially the ability to code—are highly desired as apps are increasingly being utilized to assist with farming operations.
“As our current farm labor workforce rapidly decreases, engineers are critical to the development of robots and automatic harvesters that will assist with picking crops in the field. Big data is where our industry is headed, and we need graduates who understand how to apply that information to enhance management processes,” said Nassif.
You may not recognize the Western Growers Foundation in this coming year. The Foundation, which launched nearly a decade ago as a program to plant and sustain school gardens around California and Arizona, has morphed into a movement of ag leaders working with educators to inspire our next generations of farmers. In addition to still providing grants for elementary and high schools to construct gardens, the Foundation will now be focused on supporting STEM and standards-based lessons to nurture children’s natural curiosity in areas related to farming and agriculture.
The revamped mission of the Foundation is to provide youth, ages five to 18, with a STEM foundation by encouraging lessons about agriculture. Through sponsored curriculum and hands-on learning in the gardens, students will learn about the science of how seeds become salads, the technology available to enhance plant growth, the engineering behind the ag equipment and the math needed to know how much water is needed for optimal yield.
The work of the Foundation will inspire children to continue to learn about STEM topics, graduate from elementary and high school and pursue a degree in a STEM-related topic at the university level. There, these students can explore programs such as Western Growers Careers in Ag to discover how they can apply their STEM degrees to highly-skilled jobs in agriculture.
In June 2016, WG piloted a Careers in Ag Program with UC Davis and Cal Poly Pomona to bolster the number of STEM college graduates seeking employment opportunities in ag. The purpose of the program is to 1) introduce college students to the variety of careers agriculture has to offer; 2) encourage STEM students to pursue a career in ag; and 3) introduce WG members to highly-intelligent students who they may want to hire in the future.
Students who are selected for the program participate in a three-day tour of ag and tech operations, where they are introduced to the educational pathways (e.g., courses, majors, internships) that lead to STEM careers in ag and related industries. Career advisors from the partner colleges are in attendance to make a direct connection between the curriculum and potential STEM careers in agriculture. Guest speakers also join the group during lunch and dinner to give students one-on-one interaction with ag professionals in the STEM field.
“Being able to listen and learn about current ag issues like labor and food safety directly from the farmers was extremely valuable,” said Timothy Batz, a plant science major at Cal Poly Pomona. “It helped place my ag skills and concepts from the classroom into a real-world context.”
The tour focuses on WG member companies with STEM-related career opportunities and emphasizes topics including: pest and disease management; crop science; ecology; engineering and robotics; food safety; soil science; and innovation and technology. Students have visited member companies in Salinas, Central Valley, Imperial/Coachella Valley and Yuma during past tours.
Since the launch of the original pilot program, Careers in Ag has transformed into a fully-integrated tour that also educates students from the University of Arizona, as well as from California community colleges. The program has now hosted three tours and has educated 56 students to date. WG will continually follow up with these students to connect them to possible employment opportunities within WG member companies, and in the future, reach out to them participation in leadership programs such as the Western Growers Future Volunteer Leaders Program.
WG recently installed its fourth class of Future Volunteer Leaders, a program designed for the next generation of leaders within WG member companies interested in becoming more informed and effective advocates for the fresh produce industry. These individuals are policy-minded and have expressed a desire to serve the industry in volunteer leadership capacities.
During this two-year program, young leaders have the opportunity to develop an understanding of the legislative process and how public policy issues affect the industry. The class is invited to participate in all regular board meeting functions, as well as meet with state and federal legislators and engage in political advocacy. The second year is also highlighted by a Florida production tour with members of the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association’s leadership program.
Twenty-eight have graduated from the program and have already made a difference in advocating on behalf of the industry. Pete Aiello of Uesugi Farms wrote an op-ed for the Fresno Bee about the detrimental effects pesticide bans have on farming operations. Neill Callis of Turlock Fruit Company was featured in the Modesto Bee speaking about the importance of global trade deals, such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, in growing the fresh produce industry and the national economy. The newest cohort is even delving into using Twitter as an advocacy tool. After participating in WG’s Social Media Summit, members of the FVL class created Twitter accounts to start publicly posting their opinions on issues regarding water, labor, crop protection, trade and more.
In addition to identifying and attracting the next generation of ag leaders, WG is also focused on recruitment and retention. The Western Growers HR Practices and Compensation Survey has collected data for the past seven years to provide members with crucial information needed to keep compensation competitive. The information is crucial to helping ag and ag-related companies stay ahead of the curve so they can attract and retain the best employees in in California and Arizona’s produce industry.
The survey helps organizations determine information including how their company’s wages and benefits stack up against other companies in the area, if the company is keeping up with trends to attract and keep the best employees and much more.
The association and WG member companies will continue to make it a priority to help shape our future workforce and retain those highly-skilled employees.
“Looking ahead with enthusiasm, we feel that we have invested in the next generation and new talent to move forward,” said Garland Reiter during his speech after he and Miles Reiter received the 2016 Award of Honor last November. “If we continue to listen in the field, engage with consumers and empower our youth, we will further bring diversity and success to agriculture.”
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