Saturday, June 8, 2013

Next Steps in Ag 1 of 4- Jobs- for the Willing!

This week I spent a few days in California traveling between San Francisco and Santa Maria, an area which is the cradle of US vegetable crop production.  They don't grow much of the big-ag crops.  These are strawberries, lettuces, tomatoes, etc for spring-summer-fall production.  I'm posting some of the things I learned this week in a three-part series.

BLOG 1 of 4 =  Jobs! 

Whereas job growth in many sectors is stagnant, there is huge demand for skilled horticulturalists, that is, students trained in fruit and vegetable crop production.  According to Dr. John Peterson, Head of the Department of Horticulture at Cal Poly, there are 5-7 jobs for every graduate of his program.  In a tour of the area every farmer, manager, etc said the same thing- they are desperate for well-trained plant scientists.

Surprisingly, it was not a call for plant scientists like most universities turn out.  The trends are showing less interest with biotech and organic production methods and a return to basic expertise in growing plants.  The manager of one company told me, "We need people that understand plant physiology, plant nutrition, plant pathology and entomology, along with a handle on business and communication".

The emphasis on communication came up many times.  If you can't speak and write, don't apply.

A strawberry field near Santa Maria, CA, one of many sites of summer fruit production.

The other major trend is that all positions require an unbridled work ethic and a disdain for the 40 hour work week.  The managers that have been there for 30 years are still starting at 5-6 AM and going for 10 hours a day, six days a week.  It seems like the biggest shock to new employees that are dreaming of a 9-5 desk spot.  The most seasoned employees are all working this full-time-plus schedule, and overtime rules do not apply in agriculture in California!

At the same time the salaries are good.  Even the low-end workers have the opportunity to make $800-$1500 a week, six days at about ten hours a day, which is $14-25 per hour.  The managers we spoke to were happy, motivated and optimistic, at least about the near term. They all did mention significant production caveats and those will be the topic of the next blog.

One other thought for the potential employee-- get ready to work, work hard, work smart.  At one location, a significant supplier of fresh cut broccoli, cauliflower and lettuces, said, "They show up here for an interview and they want to know how much they are going to get paid and where's the company car, long before they even know the demands of the job".

So the outlook in ag production jobs is promising.  They pay well, there is reasonable security and the companies are well established and looking for creative energy.  The people that have survived in that business are salt-of-the-earth hard workers that make it happen.  They are not looking for slackers or whiners.  They want solid, innovative, ambitious employees that know how to work with plants.

One manager at a major producer said, "When I tell an interviewee that we start at 5 AM every day except Sunday most of them say forget it".


RachaelL said...

Not to put too fine a point on it, but that kind of job doesn't leave for much else in life.

Ten hours a day 6 days a week is 60 hours already. Add a very conservative hour for commuting (I don't anyone is living terribly close to the fields, so give a half hour each way). That's 11 hours a day. Add in 8 hours for sleep, an hour for showering, grooming, etc. and that leaves 4 hours a day to do anything else. But that anything else won't involve taking your kids to or from school (better hope your spouse has a flexible job or none at all). At least the early start means you'll be home in time for dinner, though you won't be home in time to help cook it.

Is it any wonder people aren't interested? Why do agricultural jobs require 6 day weeks and ten hour days? Is it because we won't pay to have more people working them?

Josè said...

If you actually believe these are good jobs, I challenge you to try picking peaches when it's 100• and the fuzz is running down your neck. Agriculture is very labor intensive, and family farms and cooperatives are the only efficient forms of operation. The worker (bracero)-boss relationship is only possible when labor is being exploited. Nobody is making $25 per hour except the "boss.".

Adriana said...

Lesson learned: stay away from Plant Science.

Firstly, universities produce too many Plant Scientist with useless skills (molecular biology, etc.).

Secondly, if you manage to get a job in plant production, be prepared to get exploited and don't even think about having a family, hobbies, etc.. 60h weeks (6 x 10h) are considered regular work hours?! Why don't they hire 1.5 times as many people, reduce work time to 40h/week and let people work in shifts? Because they would make less profit and as long as people are accepting those work conditions....

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