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Career Pathways forward without Fresh Summit

As our industry laments another loss of our biggest in-person event of the year, with the Produce Marketing Association’s BB #:153708 cancelation of Fresh Summit next month in New Orleans, we still have to deal with the realities in our daily careers.

One problem that keeps popping up from the farm to middle market to transportation to retail and foodservice, is a lack of labor and the difficulty in attracting creative young minds to our industry.

PMA’s Center for Growing Talent and Career Pathways program have both been excellent ways to expose young people to a career in fresh produce.

The loss of an in-person Fresh Summit also means a loss of exposing future professionals to the event through Career Pathways. Sure, it was a virtual option last year, but as Megan Nash, director of programs for CGT, pointed out on the Sept. 22 PMA Town Hall on the program, the industry really shines when it meets face-to-face.

There are some things that can be done virtually, as we’ve found in the past 18 months, among them being able to work from home, which opens up the labor pool from geographic limitations, said Rick Harris, senior director category management for US Foods, during the town hall.

He said while mentoring students during an in-person Fresh Summit, he has to carefully balance his time with the students with his event duties, but during last year’s virtual Fresh Summit, he was able to devote more time to them.

Left unsaid, but experienced by many attendees, the amount of real business that can be done in the virtual version is a small fraction of the in-person experience.

The unfortunate fact remains that participants in Career Pathways do not get the critical opportunity to meet in person with industry members again this year and really get a feel for what kinds of people work in the industry.

The students know they are getting short-changed, and of course, it’s not just from meeting with people in the produce industry through this program.

Renee Shaw Hughner, associate professor in the W.P. Carey Morrison School of Agribusiness at Arizona State University, said with so many classes being virtual last year, she lost track of many seniors.

This year with more in-person classes it’s easier to connect with students, but many in-person job fairs have been canceled, as well as meetings and internships with potential employers.

“They’re worried about the lack of connection,” she said. “People are working so hard to make online happen, but there’s really something special about the people in this industry.”

Those of us in the industry know this is true, which is why so many of us remain in it.

Fresh Summit may be off for another year, but in-person events are still happening. There have been meetings the last three consecutive weeks with SEPC’s Southern Exposure, the Organic Produce Summit and United Fresh’s Washington Conference.

And there are more regional events scheduled through the end of the year.

Even if the Fresh Summit Career Pathways plan for student meetings in New Orleans can’t happen, the produce industry should make it a priority to find ways to bring students to events to expose them to what could be a fulfilling career in fresh produce and floral.

As Harris said during the town hall, the produce industry offers a career where no two days are alike.

“It’s an aging industry, and we have the need for bright young talent,” he said. “The career trajectory is fast.”

Another way to improve talent recruitment is to talk to the people who have gone through Career Pathways and found jobs in the produce industry, Harris said.

There are many good ideas out there if we ask.

Editor’s note: As Ben Friedlander, a student at Saint Joseph’s University mentioned during the town hall, Career Pathways undergraduate and graduate students receive a year of free Blue Book Online Services, as part of the program, something we have done since 2010 as a program sponsor.

Greg Johnson is Director of Media Development for Blue Book Services