March, 2006

Research Perspective and Comments & Analysis

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 Business40 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 identifying 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.

On The Right Track

The produce trade has recognized that the success of any individual company and of the industry as a whole is contingent on the quality of people working in the organizations. Thus the explosion of industry programs designed to attract young people to the business and train and acknowledge them in the formative stages of their careers.

I am privileged to serve on the steering committee of the Pack Family/PMA Career Pathways Fund, which brings bright young people to the PMA convention to expose them to the produce trade. The program has succeeded in putting the produce industry on the radar screen as a career possibility for many students, not only the young men and women who have attended PMA through the program but also countless others who have learned about the produce industry and the opportunities it offers when the returning students and faculty members become “ambassadors” for the trade.

Twenty years from now the industry will be seeded with hundreds of young executives who came face-to-face with the produce trade through the efforts of the Pack/PMA Career Pathways Fund. It is really an extraordinary gift to the future of the business.

Now, the produce trade is giving a gift to itself in the form of PMA’s donation of half a million dollars to jump-start the PMA Education Foundation. Bryan lays out three core goals of the foundation and each is an important challenge:

Job One is attracting future talent, and this is harder than it seems. The produce industry is an unusual business because it is really defined by what retail produce departments carry. In other words, a grower of apples and a grower of pineapples really don’t have much more in common than either would have with a grower of barley — except they share the same customer. Equally over the years, companies selling bulk candies, refrigerated salad dressings, birdseed, Christmas trees and fireplace logs have held membership in PMA. What ties all these together? They sell to the produce department at retail.

In our vertically oriented industry, where trade associations have membership from seed companies and growers to retailers and restaurants, it is not even clear what the produce industry is. Wal-Mart, Costco, Kroger, Safeway and more are big players in produce, but aren’t those young employees right out of school really just going to work for a retailer?

And the Chairman of PMA may be Janet Erickson from Del Taco, but those who go to work at her company are really pursuing a career in foodservice, not produce.

There are the pure players, of course — shippers and wholesalers that only sell produce items — but even there it seems likely that the substance of the job may matter more than the product. A lot of marketing majors, for example, have traditionally gone to work for Procter & Gamble upon graduation. It is not obvious that it was because soap was such a compelling product that P&G attracted all these kids. It was the nature of the work available, the reputation as a training ground for other companies, the opportunities for advancement and the social benefits of working in a big company with a lot of other young people.

There are produce companies that can hold their own in these matters. C.H. Robinson, for example, with its quantitative approach, seems ideally positioned to attract a lot of bright young people. So do many of the big branded operations.

But to retain industry support for the Foundation, attracting talent to the industry will have to mean being more inclusive. Many companies don’t need business management personnel, but they desperately need people to be buyers and salespeople and to handle logistics and countless other tasks.

It is one thing to pluck out some of the best students at top food and ag programs around the country and bring them to a major national event. It is something different not merely in degree, but in kind, to begin to attract the kind of talent required at all different levels of the produce trade.

The second and third goals for the new Foundation that Bryan lays out are Defining Requisite Competencies for Each Position and Identifying Achievement in Those Skills. These will be tough challenges as different companies define positions differently: Is it a category manager or a buyer? But the idea is valuable. What skills are needed to be a produce buyer or a salesperson or a merchandiser? And how deep will this competency evaluation go? Will we break competencies down for each item and define what an apple buyer should know about produce procurement in general and about apples in particular?

Once competencies have been defined in each area, then the logical approach is to offer training and testing so that individuals can train for an exam and get certified. Perhaps we could offer a certification as a produce buyer and then offer certificates by product to enhance credentials. Internet-based study can make the training programs available to the whole world.

Imagine how much more attractive the produce industry would be with a career path defined by professional certification and how much easier hiring would be if candidates walked in the door with verifiable credentials.

Consolidation, the development of fresh-cut technologies, increased concern about food safety and bio-security, the need to meet metrics at top buying organizations, the use of RFID and other technologies, and the blurring of retail channels all present distinct challenges. All these changes and more indicate that the produce industry will need a variety of workers whose skills can’t and won’t simply be learned on the job. The PMA Education Foundation builds on the foundation laid by The Pack Family/PMA Career Pathways Fund, and together, these are transformative efforts in the history of the produce trade.