December, 2008

Research Perspective and Comments & Analysis

A Commitment To Your Future

As I write this, PMA is putting the finishing touches on our 2009 business plans and I expect many of you are, too. I can imagine what’s in your plans — new products, market expansion, facility upgrades. Those are essential, but what about a plan for attracting and retaining leaders to manage your business in the future? If finding and developing talent is not one of your top business priorities, your other objectives may not matter in five years — and certainly won’t in 10.

It’s no secret the produce industry competes with other industries for talent. That shortage will accelerate, as the oldest baby boomers begin to retire in 2011. It is more imperative than ever to groom leaders now to first manage and then lead our produce supply chain into the future. Those of you who were at Fresh Summit in Orlando couldn’t fail to hear the steady drumbeat from industry leaders focusing on this imperative and what PMA is doing to address it.

In a recent survey, PMA members told us repeatedly that finding and keeping good, quality people is the most critical challenge facing their companies. But it’s not only about finding the right people — it’s also about connecting with the next generation, one that’s been raised on cell phones, iPods and blogs. These younger workers also expect more professional development opportunities — and we must deliver.

So what does all this mean for you? It means now is the time to invest in professional development that educates your staff and expands their skills. It means now is the time to introduce students to your company through internships, scholarships and mentoring programs to energize and excite them about the produce industry. It means you need to grow as a leader, need to connect with new generations in the workplace and need to set an example for them.

Here are a few of the ways PMA and our Foundation for Industry Talent (FIT) is addressing these needs — and you can expect to hear much more about others in the next few months.

Next month, Produce Business and Cornell University will again sponsor the annual PMA Leadership Symposium Jan. 14-1in Dallas, brought to you by PMA FIT. Each year the symposium offers leadership training with today’s top leadership experts and designed for executives looking to take their skills to the next level. The collegial, intimate environment allows up to 100 attendees to come together to share ideas, discuss business trends, examine how to manage tomorrow’s workforce, learn how to be a maverick thinker and more. I guarantee you will walk away with a newfound passion for your business and a Rolodex full of new colleagues.

While professional development is important, it’s also critical to compete for tomorrow’s top talent. The 2-year-old PMA FIT’s mission is to attract, develop and retain talent. The most visible activity so far is the Pack/PMA Career Pathways Fund, which has had great success raising the visibility of our industry at leading colleges in the United States and abroad. In Orlando, the students, faculty and alumni of the program highlighted the value of this outreach. Other foundation activities to date include hosting a job bank for entry- and intermediate-level positions, mentoring programs and scholarships that immerse students by bringing them to PMA’s Foodservice Conference. So far, of the students who have graduated since attending Fresh Summit on foundation scholarships, more than 50 percent have accepted positions, from marketers to buyers, with PMA member companies. That’s a remarkable success rate!

However, the foundation cannot grow without broad commitment, financial support and participation. It will need your help to realize its future plans to create new training and education tools, a visiting professor program and other products to encourage employee loyalty and retention. PMA and many leading companies have made large financial commitments. I encourage all of you to join us now to support the foundation’s work — with your money, your time, or preferably both. Visit www.pmafit.com for more information.

We must also develop the talent we currently have. PMA recently made two exciting new additions to our portfolio of professional development tools. The PMA Advantage: Custom Training program delivers over 100 professional development courses in 17 different subject areas — from communication skills to change management — tailored to your company and delivered at your offices. E-ssentials is a Web-based produce training platform designed with and for retailers, from store associates to department managers. Its online courses are available 24/7/365, with topics ranging from the practical to the strategic.

The talent challenge is ours to take. We must make tomorrow’s leaders part of our community today. We must invest in today’s staff and encourage their long-term commitment to the industry. We must grow as individuals, both personally and professionally. PMA is here to help you prosper — because your success is ours, too.

Attracting Talent Beyond The Abstract

As we read Bryan’s essay, we can’t help but recall the adage, “The answer you get depends on the question you ask.” We may not be asking the right questions.

When individuals decry being “unable to get jobs,” they don’t necessarily mean they cannot get any job, anywhere, doing anything at any pay. If you ask the right questions, you learn they cannot find a job a) in their locale, b) without an excessive commute, c) in the field they want, d) doing a job they are interested in, e) getting paid on terms they prefer — say salary as opposed to straight commission, f) with a benefit and compensation package they consider reasonable.

Equally, when executives answer a survey explaining “finding and keeping good, quality people is the most critical challenge facing their companies,” they probably do not mean they cannot attract and retain good, quality people at any salary, at any benefit package. What they really mean is that at the salaries they are used to paying and with the jobs as now structured, they worry about the ability to attract and retain good, quality people.

One completely reasonable response is to turn up the marketing effort. It is true little children in America do not grow up dreaming of working in the fresh produce industry. People rarely see the infrastructure that brings produce to the table, so an industry-wide effort to raise awareness and put the produce industry on the career radar screen is reasonable and appropriate.

Yes, the Pack/PMA Career Pathways Fund is a fantastic program and the industry is eternally in the debt of Jay and Ruthie Pack for initiating and funding the program and to PMA for organizing and sustaining it. That many a student who might have wound up in another industry winds up in produce after being exposed to the PMA convention is simply beyond any reasonable doubt.

Unfortunately, the over-50 percent number Bryan mentions is probably less meaningful than we might hope. The scholarship students are not selected randomly. It is highly likely that in one way or another — perhaps due to family connections or the interests of their faculty advisor or even who their friends are — these students would have disproportionately wound up in produce under any circumstances.

Yet even if we accept that every single scholarship student who wound up working in the produce industry would not have done so otherwise — that still doesn’t answer the question as to the utility of these programs. In order for them to be deemed useful to the industry, we actually have to be creating additional jobs or, at least, improving the quality of those holding produce-industry jobs. We just have no data whether this is happening.

In other words, certain jobs in the industry require the intellectual abilities, skill sets and attitudes a graduating senior from, say, Cornell, possesses. Now if we grant a scholarship to a Cornell student who comes to PMA, is introduced around and, because employers want to see this program succeed, he or she is offered a position in the industry upon graduation, the stats for the program will be good.

But the industry question is whether our young Cornell alum is just taking a position from another graduate of equal ability who didn’t happen to win the scholarship.

In other words, if Wal-Mart hires a PMA scholarship student as a junior buyer, that is great but does it mean Wal-Mart wouldn’t have filled that position without the PMA program? And if it would have, what did the industry accomplish by giving the scholarship?

There is a real danger the industry will focus excessively on attracting and retaining as abstract principles instead of focusing on making the jobs sufficiently desirable that people are attracted to the industry and want to stay in the business.

The market works pretty efficiently at disseminating this type of information. A few years ago, the front pages were filled with the news that for the first time ever the editor of the Harvard Law Review had accepted a position in investment banking. Children don’t typically dream of growing up to be investment bankers. Same thing with management consulting, yet students in good schools have for years learned there were opportunities at McKinsey & Co. or Goldman Sachs. If that situation changes and the opportunity is more constrained because of the financial crisis, the buzz on campus will quickly shift to favor marketing positions at Procter & Gamble and other opportunities that will develop.

It is easy to think of the trade’s recruitment problems as primarily being caused by the ignorance of the student body: “If they only knew us, they would want to work here.”

There is truth there. The produce industry is addictive, and if we can expose people, we will win some over. But the real challenge is how we can develop systems to make each individual more productive — then we can use that increased earning power to provide the pay, benefits and atmosphere to attract high-quality people to the industry.

The secret to attracting and retaining high-quality people is to offer high-quality jobs. The PMA Foundation for Industry Talent can promote the produce industry as a career opportunity. But it could also help the industry to benchmark its opportunities against those of alternative career paths.

What are the job opportunities on a terminal market? Who might be a candidate for them? Why might those candidates prefer to work elsewhere? Can we alter the jobs to make them more appealing? PMA FIT could help the industry by shepherding this thought process for job classifications and business classifications throughout the industry.

We have found that if the product is good — in this case if the job opportunities the industry offers are compelling — the marketing effort tends to be far more effective.