September 14, 2018

Workforce Development at the Forefront of Western Growers Initiatives

By Stephanie Metzinger

Just as the sun rises over the seemingly infinite fields of lettuce, the chatter of excited university students starts to echo down the highway. In the distance, you can see the silhouette of a bus heading toward the field. The bus arrives at its first stop, unloading 30 students who are marching down the rows of lettuce to learn how occupations like science and engineering play a role in agriculture. As their tennis shoes hit the ground and clouds of dirt kick up behind them, they are now fully engaged in what will be one of the most eye-opening and informative career exploration journeys of their lives.

These students are among a cohort of Western Growers (WG) Careers in Ag—an initiative to encourage college students to pursue science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) careers within the agricultural industry. The program was launched in July 2017, taking a group of 15 students from Cal Poly Pomona and UC Davis, who were all studying STEM-related topics, on a three-day tour throughout the Central Coast. They visited WG member operations and met with successful ag professionals to learn about the different types of jobs available for them and to understand how crucial STEM experts are to the survival of agriculture. Since then, nearly 140 students have participated in Careers in Ag, and the program has expanded to include California community colleges, University of Arizona and Cal State L.A.

“It’s not all tractors and plows out here. It’s a lot of computers and sensors and all the new technology that comes to the ranch,” said Brian Antle, president of PlantTape USA. “It’s certainly going to take the next generation of students and workers to run all this equipment, so it’s great to have everybody out here and show them around and open their eyes to what’s available out here on the ranch.”

In addition to encouraging students to apply their STEM-related degrees toward a career in ag, the program also facilitates career placement between students and ag organizations. One such example is Travis Taylor, a managerial economics major at UC Davis, who participated in the tour while he was a junior at the university. Taylor made such a lasting impression on Taylor Farms’ Director of Automated Harvesting Equipment Chris Rotticci during the tour that when WG connected them soon after, Rotticci offered Taylor a summer internship at Taylor Farm’s new entity, Automated Harvesting LLC.

“[The internship] not only gave me great hands-on experience, it gave me the right direction on where I want to go moving forward with my career,” said Taylor. “I thank Automated Harvesting for this great opportunity and also Western Growers for their continued support.” Today, Taylor has since graduated from UC Davis and has accepted a manager position with a grape grower in Lodi, Calif.

Throughout the tour, students also have the opportunity to meet agtech startups and hear about Salinas-based Western Growers Center for Innovation & Technology (WGCIT). The WGCIT has also launched several workforce development programs to encourage youth to pursue a career in ag. For example, the WGCIT hosts a “Home for the Holidays” professional mixer where college students who are returning home to Salinas Valley during winter break are invited to an exclusive meet-and-greet with industry leaders and tech companies. Last year, 30 students from CSU Monterey Bay, Hartnell Community College, UC Davis, Cal Poly Pomona and Fresno State convened at the Center to chat with ag professionals from Taylor Farms and Steinbeck Country Produce, as well as with numerous WGCIT startups, to hear about their career paths, glean tips on getting ahead in the workforce and learn about their experiences in ag. Additionally, students were treated to a keynote address about the latest trends in agricultural technology and the career opportunities for current agricultural students.

Beyond college students, the WGCIT is also providing middle and high schoolers with the knowledge and tools needed to succeed in agriculture. The Center introduced the Junior AgSharks Competition earlier this year during the Center’s inaugural AgTechx event. Junior AgSharks brings together students from local middle and high schools to listen to pitches from start-up companies developing technologies to solve agriculture’s most pressing issues. After hearing the pitches, the students “confer” with a panel of venture capitalists and farmers to choose which startup they believe has the best technology to solve issues plaguing the local region.

“The boom of agricultural technology is opening the doors to many jobs that did not previously exist, and we are thrilled that events such as Home for the Holidays and Junior AgSharks are helping introduce youth to these budding career opportunities,” said Dennis Donohue, lead of the WGCIT.

By hearing about the latest technologies and interacting with leaders in the ag industry and venture capitalist space, students become aware of the fact that the industry is in need of future leaders who are interested in STEM-related topics. Each Junior AgSharks event culminates with keynote addresses from movers and shakers in the robotics or tech industry.

In a similar effort to promote interactive STEM education, Western Growers Foundation awards grants to schools in California and Arizona to give students more opportunity for hands-on learning by growing a garden. The Foundation has funded nearly 1,200 school gardens since its inception in 1995, and today, the school garden program has evolved to support STEM curriculum to nurture the natural curiosity of children in areas related to farming and agriculture.

This year, WG awarded 20 K-12 schools $1,500 grants to support new school gardens. Through these sponsored gardens and selected curriculum, students will learn about the science of how seeds become salads, the technology available to enhance plant growth, the engineering behind farm equipment and the math to calculate how much water is needed for optimal yield.

“We hope that these gardens will help children see the connections between STEM subjects and farming, inspire them to pursue advanced STEM degrees and, eventually, apply their knowledge to highly-skilled careers in the agricultural industry,” said WG President and CEO Tom Nassif.

In addition to arming K-12 and college students with the skills and knowledge needed to prosper in the ag industry, WG is also taking steps to cultivate the future generation of farmers. In February 2013, WG installed its inaugural class of Future Volunteer Leaders, a two-year program designed for the next generation of leaders within WG member companies. These individuals are policy-minded and have expressed an interest in becoming more informed and effective advocates for the fresh produce industry.

These future leaders are invited to participate in all WG board meeting functions and engage in political advocacy in DC and Sacramento to develop a deeper understanding of the legislative process and how public policy issues affect the industry. To date, 34 young leaders have participated in the program, with one graduate—Steve Martori III of Martori Farms—already serving on WG’s Board of Directors