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Pundit’s Mailbag — Follow-up On PMAEF Student Follow-up

Our pieces, PMA Education Foundation Looks To Attract And Retain New Industry Talent, Pundit’s Mailbag — Protocol Lesson For PMA Education Foundation Students and PMA Education Foundation Serious About Growing The Industry have all dealt with PMA’s recently formed Education Foundation, the experience of individuals who have interacted with students brought to industry events through the Pack Family/PMA Career Pathways Fund or the Nucci Scholarship for Culinary Innovation and, more broadly, with the general issue of how students interact with the trade.

Now Cindy Seel, the Executive Director of the PMA Education Foundation, writes to us to share the perspective of the Foundation on these issues:

I have been following the Pundit and the articles related to the PMA Education Foundation.I wanted to chime in with a few facts to clarify things…

I want to assure your readers that networking follow-up training is included as part of the Pack Family/Career Pathways program. Just this past October, we added a session for the students entitled “Branding You”.This session was put together collaboratively by the faculty of the participating schools and taught by Larry Zink from Michigan State University.The session focused on how to create and maintain your own personal brand and how everything you say, wear, post to social networking sites, do or don’t do becomes part of your brand.Dan’l Almy of DMA Solutions also presented part of this session and focused on how to work your brand on the trade show floor.

Both Larry and Dan’l talked about follow-up at great lengths, and I know that all the faculty at the participating schools have urged students to follow up by phone or in writing.I appreciate the constructive feedback from your earlier articles, and we will work to make the branding/follow-up section of our program even stronger.I also wanted to mention that many of our industry advisors have told me about the follow-up with their students, and I know that both Jay Pack and I have had wonderful emails and handwritten letters from students.

As to why students don’t follow up, I think you hit on many of the reasons — geography, interest, generational differences are all common ones.You also mentioned that today’s students have choices — and today there are plenty of them.That is one of the reasons the Foundation was formed.I was just reading a study conducted by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) on the 2008 Job Outlook, and it stated that we are in one of the most competitive recruiting markets ever.Gone are the days when businesses can sit back and wait for the many applicants to come begging for jobs.Recruiting is now a two-way relationship where both companies and students need to do the “courting”.

The PMA Board of Directors formed this Foundation because our industry as a whole is not in a position to compete. There has not been a unified “voice of the industry” touting the rewards and opportunities of careers in produce.That is now the job of the Foundation, along with offering scholarship programs such as Pack and Nucci and developing mentoring and internship programs.

Our job is to gain exposure for and interest in the produce industry and engage students in the real world of produce so we can entice them with the passion, excitement and integrity of the business. In the immortal words of Justin Timberlake, “We’re bringing sexy back.”

The current contributors to the Foundation, a mix of large, medium and small companies, are visionaries and know what we need to do if we are going to ensure a strong talent pool and continued leadership for our industry.We don’t look at our contributors as merely investors; we look at them as partners who are active in providing vision, strategic direction, and yes financial support.

Lorri Koster of Mann Packing is one such supporter, and I believe she expressed those views in a previous letter.I also received a supportive e-mail from another contributor… Amy Gates of Frontera Produce in Texas wrote…”Frontera Produce is a proud supporter of the Education Foundation and I can clearly attest that the decision to invest our resources in the Foundation was a planned investment in our (and the produce industry’s) future.We are very strategic with the funds we have, and we apply them where we feel we will get the most return”.

The companies (big and small) that are choosing to invest in the Foundation aren’t doing so because they have buckets of money laying around. They see the need for change in how the industry attracts and retains its people and are willing to make that investment.

The fact of the matter is the world around us has changed.Our industry is not the same as our grandfathers and fathers once knew.Technology, food safety, and regulations have changed the landscape forever.The need for quality recruits is higher than ever.

Technology has also changed things for the newer generation.Students rarely write personal hand-written thank-you notes like we used to do.They text and instant message.Their expectations are high and they want to be in the driver’s seat when making their career choices.Whether we think this is right or wrong, it is reality. But these students also have a lot to offer our industry and we need to be able to compete for their talent.

There are lessons to be learned on all sides of this story.Yes, students need to follow up, be respectful and appreciate the opportunities they are given.Yes, the Foundation can always improve on the programs we offer.And yes, the industry needs to think and act differently to attract this new generation and our future workforce.It’s not about one generation being better than another — it’s about using the strengths of each generation to grow and advance the industry.

Thank you for the opportunity to share the views of the Foundation.

— Cindy Seel
Executive Director
PMA Education Foundation
Newark, DE

We appreciate Cindy taking the time to write. Each generation has its own ways, and there is thus an ongoing tango as the business community tries to impose its norms on the upcoming employees while the values and customs of those employees alter the corporate culture. Casual Fridays and a general relaxing of dress requirements, for example, didn’t come about because a bunch of old guys who wore suits their whole lives woke up one day and said they want to shed their ties. It was a new generation infusing its values into the work place.

This process has accelerated in recent years because our society has become so entrepreneurial that young people are running substantial organizations — especially in the high-tech area — earlier than ever before. These organizations then compete for talent and other organizations feel the need to respond. Thus, everything from pet-friendly offices to visiting massage therapists spread through industries.

In fact, it is easy to criticize others and so to point to the failings of young people is easy. How much harder to reassess our own organizations and their failures. How many companies don’t send a “thank you for applying” note to anyone who sends in a resume as a result of running an ad? How many companies have no mechanism for making sure that every contact at a convention or inquiry from an ad is actually professionally followed up?

The real issue is about resource allocation. Is the industry better off spending money to retain and professionally develop people already working in the industry or are we better off spending money to attract new talent?

To what extent do students gravitate toward an industry — produce, for example, as opposed to responding to specific job offers? Some careers offer some particularly appealing aspect — so college students sometimes know they want to get into investment banking — but one suspects that is just a synonym for wanting to make big bucks.

Our sense is actually that those without a specific tie to a place or industry tend to look for the best program. So students will want to work for P&G not because they love anything about consumer packaged goods but because they understand that P&G is considered a great training ground and that after two years they can get into great MBA programs or will be desired by other employers.

Think of the United/DuPont program and imagine an expanded version not offered to a select few but offered as part of accepting a career in produce — much as the P&G training program is an integral part of working at an executive level for P&G. This may be the “missing link” — Pack and Nucci programs introduce students to the trade. Then the produce employers will need something they can offer that will tempt an ambitious young graduate to prefer the produce industry over another alternative.

We may have to reach out to younger students if we want people to focus on produce careers. At what stage of a student’s career is it most effective to get them thinking about produce? If we reach them as seniors in college, their course work has been pretty much set. Won’t that course work, to some extent, determine the kinds of jobs they are look for? At a university such as Cornell, high school students at 17 years of age are applying to the Cornell School of Hotel Administration — thus expressing a pretty strong desire to be in the hospitality industry.

Certainly the Foundation needs to be spending some money collecting data. Obviously we need to track students in the Pack and Nucci programs, but we should also try to track a control group of applicants that don’t get accepted. Since the acceptance is not random, it is not a perfect control group, but the industry will want to see some evidence that the programs are succeeding at attracting a disproportionate percentage of the students who attend the programs. In keeping statistics, the Foundation should be careful to note which students had pre-existing ties to the produce industry, which came from hometowns rich in produce jobs and which were completely “new conquests” to the industry.

Tracking may also reveal other problems. If the programs attract new recruits to the industry, but those recruits leave quickly, we may need to focus more efforts on retention.

The PMA Education Foundation doesn’t have an easy job. Almost by definition, its job of getting students to look at an industry where they wouldn’t have otherwise is going to be difficult and expensive — otherwise private companies would do it themselves. Many produce companies can send a recruiter to recruit the children or friends of produce industry members at Cal Poly or UC Davis. If the Foundation does that it may produce impressive ROI, but it is not that much of a service to the trade.

If we can turn kids at Texas A&M or, for that matter, Wharton, to look at the produce industry for career prospects, we will have really done something. Inevitably, though, these are difficult tasks, they won’t “pay off” in a way that is sufficient for private enterprise to bother trying — how many produce companies recruited at Wharton last year? — but that is precisely why we need a non-profit foundation.

Abraham Lincoln said this about government. ‘The legitimate object of government is to do for a community of people whatever they need to have done, but cannot do at all, or cannot so well do, for themselves, in their separate and individual capacities.’So too, we need a non-profit foundation to do precisely the things that don’t make sense for private enterprises to do.

Many thanks to Cindy for her note and best of luck to the Foundation in 2008.

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