Bako Sweet | August 2020

Joe Produce: The Rite of Passage...to a Degree - Part 2


Thousands of young people join the military every year, and most not because they really want to live in extreme conditions for months at a time. The military attracts youths with opportunities to:

1. Serve their country

2. See the world

3. Get trained

4. Receive college money

Perhaps we can learn from the U.S. military.

In the June issue of The Snack, I questioned if the weight we put on a college degree is accurate. Now, I want to share some ideas about following models similar to sports and the armed forces.

The Big Idea…

I like the power of saying what if. As in, what if produce companies had a pre-set career track and training program for people who want in to the business but lack experience? This is, in essence, a new spin on an old practice (apprenticeships).

I envision the first period(s) of the track would be the same for all, much like GE (general education) for college students. Prospects start out in growing and/or production to learn the business, then various stages move them on to other departments and roles. Ultimately, each would split off to a department and a specific developmental career path.

Major League Ag Association (MLAA)

In Part 1, I volunteered my hometown of Salinas, California, as an example for an office that represents all the companies who agree to be a part of our own MLAA, where we recruit youths from high school and community colleges. Remember when we took BACK “farm system” from baseball?

The development, guidance, and mentoring of the tracks would be supported by the MLAA—an organization may even earn an accreditation.

Some of these Single A, Double A, and Triple A players/apprentices would move into permanent roles with the companies, and others would choose career tracks that would take them to further education and/or training. Where an investment is involved in the education or training of the respective apprentices, there would be an offer seeking a commitment of work—for competitive pay—for an agreed-upon time period. Just like the Army!

For example, an apprentice reaches a particular point in their career track and now they’re ready and suited to move on to an education for their next level of growth. The company offers a contract of two years part-time school and work combined for general education, and then, provided that the apprentice achieves certain levels of performance at both, the company funds two more years at a university. The apprentice agrees to work summers at the company—for reasonable pay—and then for four years minimum after the schooling (don’t get caught up in the figures here, it’s really about the concept at this stage).

What if the apprentice wants to change jobs?

Another company can buy the contract (at the apprenticeship’s discretion) for the amount owed, plus interest and/or another fee. Changing jobs has to be possible, but it can’t be too easy or cheap for other companies to recruit or “poach” the people in which you have been investing.

So what does this solve?

Perhaps a lot, but I’m a bit biased toward my ideas. I play tennis with an ex-professional baseball player who made the great point that, “scholarships attract the best athletes to a program, versus just the best whose families can afford it.” In this instance, we can attract and vet the best young talent earlier, get them training and contributing sooner, and then grow their skills in our “game,” a.k.a industry. The way I see it, we could:

1. Scout and recruit talent younger

2. Develop real and useful experience sooner

3. Invest in talent and know the return on investment (ROI)

4. Alleviate college debt in two ways: bypassing college for some and sponsoring it for others

Baby boomers—there is a TON of experience and talent that is walking out of our doors every day. What I hear from many of these folks is that they want to give back and would love to have roles where they train and mentor the next generations. Tap into that! Here are the people to lead these programs. Perhaps they have less stress, pressure, and compensation, and can contribute so our companies flourish into the future after them. Make baby boomers part of the solution—let’s tap into their experience and value!

College and tuition may be part of the “carrot” for a rookie. In that respect, the MLAA could negotiate with colleges for classes and degrees, training for particular career tracks. Beyond that, I envision companies with training programs, career tracks, mentoring, and growth.

What about the “college experience?”

I keep hearing this when I discuss these issues. An industry vet and former CEO of a large produce company, who has his own MBA, recently said, “Rex, what about the college experience? This was a great opportunity for my kids to grow up before they went into ‘the real world’ on their own.” That could be true, but what is that time and money worth?

Aren’t there other ways to grow up? Perhaps it would be better for kids to join an apprenticeship for a couple years, get paid, figure out what they want and where they’re going, and then possibly go to college later. And when they do go, they could have a clear idea as to the ROI, including how it relates to a real vocation.

In my last piece, I answered, “how it might work?”, while promising to bring it back to what this could do for kids, parents, companies, and agriculture. I don’t see this as bypassing or eliminating college, or the experiences and lessons gained in college. If anything, I see it as bettering the existing system.

What if parents and graduates didn’t have to worry about a debt they couldn’t pay with the degree they hold? What if you knew your ROI on your incoming hires well before you hire them? It might make you swing for the fences, and it might be a home run.

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.