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Pack Foundation brings new talent into the produce industry

by Ryan Beckman | November 01, 2011

Each year, the Pack Family Foundation gives top college students the opportunity to learn from industry leaders through one-on-one student-mentor relationships.

The Pack Family Foundation, created by Jay and Ruthie Pack, funds the Career Pathways program and has sent some of the best and brightest college students from agriculture and food programs to the Produce Marketing Association’s Fresh Summit International Convention & Exposition for the past eight years.

“Jay and Bryan Silbermann [president of the Produce Marketing Association] were talking about the need for increasing the talent pool of young professionals in the industry,” said Alicia Calhoun, PMA-FIT-Logoprogram director for the PMA Foundation for Industry Talent, which manages and administers the Career Pathways program. “Jay has funded this program since 2004, and we work with universities domestically and internationally: This year, we had eight U.S. schools and five international schools. Jay’s contribution funds students and faculty from those schools to come to PMA’s Fresh Summit event, and we include and integrate them into the Fresh Summit programming. So they’re going to go to the general sessions and the workshops and things that PMA puts on, and we also create customized programming that’s just for them — that just the students and faculty are involved in.”

Part of the program involves a series of career panels. “We’ll get a group of four or five industry leaders to talk to the students about opportunities in the industry, what their career paths were, how they got involved in the industry and things like that,” said Ms. Calhoun.

Each year, the program is reviewed in order to make improvements and tailor the experience to students’ evolving needs. “Alicia and I both meet with the students [on the last day of Fresh Summit] and ask them to critique their experience,” said Mr. Pack. “One of the issues is that they like the intimacy, so we’ve been careful to grow the program on a restricted basis.”

About three years ago, the feedback indicated that students wanted to hear from young professionals who had taken jobs in the industry after participating in Career Pathways.

LeighAnne Thomsen, one of the students to participate in last year’s program, said that this was the students’ favorite panel. “They talked about the transition from being students to being in the industry. It was important to us because it was reassuring and set our worries at ease.”

Jay Pack (right) from The Pack Group speaking with students, and Steve Barnard (center, back), president of Mission Produce, at the PMA Foundation for Industry Talent Pack Family Career Pathways reception. (Photos provided by the PMA Foundation for Industry Talent)

Additionally, Mr. Pack said, “One of the things we have tried to do, going back to the first student, is to maintain a network of alumni that have gone through the program.”

The element of communication and networking plays a large role in the foundation’s success.

One of the more important opportunities provided by the Pack Family Foundation is the Career Ambassador Program, “which is selecting someone from a company to mentor and provide some guidance to each student,” said Mr. Pack. “This is very much appreciated because it is very time-consuming and professionally it’s the busiest weekend for the ambassadors. It’s not an easy request, but many of the ambassadors have come up to me and stated that they have received as much enjoyment and satisfaction out of the program as the students have.”

Ms. Calhoun noted that the mentor relationship “provides a lot of value for the students because they have the opportunity to meet people that they wouldn’t typically have the chance to meet.”

Ms. Thomsen explained the important role her ambassador played: “Joe [Caldwell, vice president of Monterey Mushrooms] was one of the highlights because he’s such a great person and he’s very knowledgeable and connected in the industry. He wanted me to think about the kind of position I was interested in pursuing, and he catered my experience and the people he introduced me to around that, which made it a lot more personal rather than just an overview.”

The process of recruiting students from ag programs followed from the success Mr. Pack experienced with his former company, Standard Fruit & Vegetable Co., which “began recruiting students from Texas A&M in the mid-90s. We found that a lot of students in agricultural and food schools really didn’t know much about the produce industry. The experience was so positive that we continued to recruit every year until we sold our company in 2003. We tried to take what was a great experience for our own company and match it up with an opportunity for the trade association. We wanted to partner with PMA and try to attract students.”

The first year of the program brought 24 students from five schools to Fresh Summit. “The whole idea was to bring them to the annual trade association and give them exposure to as many facets of the industry as we possibly could in that five-day period,” said Mr. Pack. “And when you think about it, there aren’t many industries that one can become immersed into over a four- or five-day period and get a feel for the cultures of the companies and the industry.”

Of the students who have graduated from college, approximately half have taken jobs or internships in the produce industry.

Ms. Thomsen recently was hired by Mission Produce and said that the opportunity to attend PMA was invaluable. “It gave me more direction in deciding what avenue I was going to pursue. It put a lot of company names in front of me just by walking through the booths. I felt like I was able to experience the different companies and what kind of cultures they had and I was able to narrow down my list. And it definitely played a part with me getting my job today.”

Ms. Thomsen said that Ms. Calhoun and the Pack Family Foundation provided her the tools to get her dream job.

And the produce industry has benefited by attracting elite students and encouraging them to make an informed decision to join the industry.

“The letters I get from people in the industry — and from students and faculty members — have been gratifying and rewarding, but it’s been very impactful to those who have been touched by it. I think [the experiences have] been extremely beneficial and run the gamut from large companies to small wholesalers that have been able to recruit,” said Mr. Pack. “We just never knew what was going to happen when we initially came up with the concept, but I think it has exceeded everyone’s expectations, and we’re thrilled about that.”

jaypAll the students who participated in the PMA Foundation for Industry Talent’s Career Pathways program at Fresh Summit 2011 with Bryan Silbermann (left) and Jay Pack (right).