Bako Sweet | August 2020

Joe Produce: The Rite of Passage...to a Degree - Part 1


There are few things in our world that seem to have their own economies completely detached from the general rules. Health care and college are top of mind—both seem to have a “mind of their own,” in terms of inflation.

Perhaps we can cover health care in the future. Today, I want to talk about college, and I have some questions that may make some of my friends and colleagues uncomfortable. When is college needed? When is it not? What is the purpose and value of college? Should ROI (return on investment) and a vocation be part of the decision process? Is it time to reexamine who, when, why, and how someone goes to college? 

As a recruiter, employer, and parent, I’ve been asking myself these questions for quite some time now and having conversations on these and related subjects. Concurrently, I speak with employers and others in our industry about our aging workforce and the need for new, young talent, as well as the need or desire for experience by employers. It’s quite the dynamic web of interrelated issues.

Meanwhile, I ask parents and college students-to-be, “Where are you going? What are you studying? What do you want when you get out?”

I have to admit, I’m amazed and flabbergasted by some of the answers. Many have a kinda/sorta idea about what they enjoy in terms of studies. Many have schools they like based on various criteria, and a few have a clear direction as to what they will choose as a vocation.

Over a trillion dollars in college loan debt! Can we afford to keep going in this manner?

The week our daughter, Jordan, was born 17 years ago, my wife, Leslie, and I started a 529 College Savings Plan and have been squirreling money away ever since. Despite that number growing to quite a tidy sum, it may not be enough for four years, let alone if she is going beyond four years.

Here at Joe Produce, I am constantly talking with candidates and employers about careers, searches, resumes, experience, skills, and education. Since we had Jordan a bit later in life, we have friends ahead of us whose kids are going into college and others with kids graduating. We also have friends whose kids have graduated and are now coping with college debt while starting their careers...or trying to.

Has college become this very expensive “rite of passage” that is disconnected from a desired end result? From a vocation? From a real ROI? Perhaps that ROI was not as important 30 years ago when the costs were substantially less.

Let’s talk about TODAY

Today, college students are graduating schools with tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. Some are living back at home to help pay into it while trying to figure out a career. Today, unemployment is at historical lows. Today, companies like Google, Facebook, and more are not requiring a degree for applicants. Perhaps today is the day that we in the produce industry ask ourselves what exactly we want from our workforce. How are we going to attract young talent into a hard-working industry that is not as “sexy” as some other industries? How are we going to attract talent into living in smaller rural areas that may not be as fun and cool as some larger urban areas?

What if our industry adopted a new system, a “farm system” (pun intended and stolen BACK from baseball!) where we recruited youths from high schools and community colleges? There could and would be interviews, testing, tryouts, offers, and commitments. In my hometown of Salinas, California, for example, we could have an office that represents all the companies that agree to be a part of our MLAA (Major League Ag Association).

How might this work?

Before I grapple with that question, let me say that this is not for all kids and is not circumventing college, at least not for everyone. For now, let’s answer “how it might work.”

What if our industry developed a training and apprenticeship program for people to learn about our business and supply chain while working their way through a succession of positions, ultimately splitting off to various departments and following a specific developmental career path?

Could we hire kids out of high school, take them through our supposed developmental program, and have them “graduate” to great paying roles without college debt?

And, at some stage(s), could the employer sponsor their “higher education” for SPECIFIC roles in ag at the appropriate stage in their progression? Could the high school grad commit to the program with the employers, just like they commit to the Army now for college dollars?

Is this an idea...or a need?

For now, I have a lot of questions and some possible answers, including what this could do for kids, parents, companies, and agriculture. Keep an eye out for my follow-up to this topic in the next issue of The Snack Magazine.

Rex Lawrence, Founder and President of Joe ProduceRex Lawrence, Founder and President of Joe Produce, was born & raised in Salinas, CA. His 28 years in the produce industry includes positions in senior sales, marketing & management for some of the industry’s leaders. Rex and his team truly understand that finding the perfect “fit” is about more than matching a skill set with specific job requirements.