(Oct. 24) As the produce industry moves forward, it faces the problem of an increasingly aging work force.

As more baby boomers retire from the work force, the industry is facing a huge talent drain, something the Produce Marketing Association, Newark, Del., is taking steps to rectify.

“One of the key issues (facing the industry) is the impending talent shortage,” said Cindy Seel, executive director of the association’s Foundation for Industry Talent. “We’re looking at demographics predicting shortages of 10 million over the next 10 years. That in combination with baby boomer retirement and the smaller Generation X creates a shortage of people, and even more so, a shortage of talent.”

PMA FIT, formerly known as the PMA Education Foundation, will debut its new name and logo at the association’s Fresh Summit Oct. 24-27 in Orlando, Fla., Seel said.

Supporting emerging members

Through the foundation, the association is taking proactive steps to attract fresh blood to the produce industry, Seel said.

“Our industry doesn’t have much recognition or word-of-mouth on college campuses,” Seel said. “If we don’t have any presence on college campuses, you can see where the problems lie.”

A key technique the association is using to achieve this goal is its student scholarship program, the Pack Family/PMA Career Pathways Fund.

Now in its fifth year, the fund is sponsoring nearly 50 students and faculty members from seven domestic and five international colleges and universities to attend Fresh Summit, Seel said.

“This program is designed to support emerging leaders,” Seel said. “It allows them to choose one of our four leadership programs and the scholarship pays for registration and the hotel for that particular event.”

Over its five-year history, the fund has sponsored 113 students, with 34 of the 65 scholarship recipients who have graduated finding employment in the produce industry, Seel said.

In addition to attracting new talent, the foundation also wants to develop leadership in young people already in the industry, Seel said.

“Our focus is on college students primarily, but also on young professionals. We really need people in the one- to six-year gap,” Seel said. “That means going out to other industries and attracting people, (as well as) developing the people we have in the industry, and preparing them for the next level of leadership.”

Networking, job fair

To this end, PMA FIT scheduled a networking event for young industry professionals Oct. 24. Providing an opportunity for young produce professionals to socialize and discuss industry issues in an informal environment, the event fosters the development of a peer network, Seel said.

“We have all of these young people we’re placing in the produce industry and they’re connected to the foundation,” Seel said. “They want to connect with other young people in the industry. (And that’s something) that has to happen at a grassroots level. This is a brainchild of some of our recent career pathways alumni. They wanted to do this and we said we’ll help you and work with you to get it done.”

PMA FIT plans to sponsor a job fair this year, something it has never done in the past. Students participating in the scholarship program will have the opportunity to meet with representatives from 15 companies throughout the industry, as well as having access to an online job bank at www.producejobsource.com.

“The job fair and the Web site are both part of our plan, an extension of our Career Pathways program,” Seel said. “The expo floor is insanely busy and not necessarily the best environment for students, so this lets (students) get some time speaking to the right people. This is our first year doing this (and) if it works we’ll expand it.”

Additionally, the foundation scheduled an educational workshop on retaining talent Oct. 24. Moderated by Seel, the workshop, entitled “Managing Generation ‘Why’: Harnessing the Talents and Skills of the Next Generation,” focuses on how managers can build loyalty, energize and encourage young members of the work force, Seel said.

“We asked ourselves, how do we need to do things differently to attract and retain that talent?” she said. “It’s not all about one side or another needing to change, it’s about how to compromise and consider all management styles when dealing with a workforce.”

Author Mark Murphy, founder and chief executive officer of Leadership IQ, is the featured speaker at the workshop, and also appears in a recorded Webcast and live Web seminar.

In addition to these programs, the foundation is also working to develop a set of best practices for internships within the industry, Seel said.

“Many students go about finding jobs through internships and (this lets) companies test-drive students to see how they fit,” Seel said. “(But) a lot of businesses, though, don’t have a formal internship program, so we’re in the process of developing best practices for internships.”