LOS ANGELES — It is widely recognized that unemployment is currently high in the United States and that unemployment among young people under the age of 25 is particularly high. Even college graduates are finding it more difficult to get a job than has been the case historically.
Some small business owners around the country tell of receiving hundreds of applications for every job opening.
Yet, there are produce companies in the Los Angeles area that advertise for good-paying jobs and get few applications.
Unquestionably, there are many bright young talented people in the produce industry. Some grew up in the business and others are newcomers. But are there enough of them to sustain the business, or will the average age of those working in produce, and particularly in wholesale produce houses in major markets such as Los Angeles, continue to rise? Does the produce business simply not appeal to young people anymore? Are the hours unappealing? Is the work too hard?
Those are concerns that many in the industry have been expressing for the last decade or two.
Another concern that is often expressed by business veterans is that so many of the young people who do come into the business really don’t understand produce. They may be tech savvy. They may bring great computer and Internet technology skills. But do they really understand the products they are dealing with?
Ted Kaplan, president of Professional Produce in Vernon, CA, has had some of those concerns, but he feels that the situation may be starting to improve.
“I think everybody in this country in the produce industry needs to find young people willing to work, and train them properly in terms of what produce is,” Mr. Kaplan said June 20.
There has been “a gap of about 10 years or more” in which there were people entering the produce business without “quite grasping the intricate parts of what we do on a daily basis” and how that is affected by such things as product quality and weather issues.
On “both sides of the ball, so to speak,” buyers and sellers alike “got caught up in the numbers and the computer game,” with many of the younger generation not understanding “what produce really is.”
However, “I think there is a new breed of kids out there today that are interested in entrepreneurial work,” he said, and “that creates an enthusiastic ability to transcend into a good work ethic.”
Ten years ago, “when I would tell a kid what it took to be successful in the produce business, 99 percent of them would tell me, ‘I can’t do that,’” he said. They were “dreaming of an easier, softer way, but if you want to be successful, there is no easier, softer way. It takes work.”
Now, “I am starting to look around and find some of these young college graduates that are willing to learn what we do here” and to understand that produce is more than just the numbers on a sales sheet or a profit-and-loss statement.
Yes, the business is more computer oriented than it used to be, “but you still need the knowledge,” he said. Some young college graduates Mr. Kaplan interviewed who would soon be joining the company do seem to understand that and to be interested, he said, “and I am excited.”
Jeff Weisfeld, president of Fruit Distributing Corp. of California in Commerce, CA, has also just hired two young people, but he has marveled at how difficult it has been to find candidates for good paying produce jobs. He has also observed how many of the companies he works with on the supply side and the customer side alike do not seem to have any “young people in the pipeline to take over” from the aging personnel he has done business with for the past 20 or 25 years. “Are the kids not doing the business anymore? Are they not wanting to wake up early? That’s the question I’m asking.”
The industry is “looking for workers,” but “most human beings don’t want to wake up at midnight to go to work,” he said. “That has been the problem in this business forever, and that is one of the reasons we pay so well.”
Bill Vogel, president Tavilla Sales Co. of Los Angeles, said he has not found it particularly hard to find young people to hire, although it does take some looking.
While many have a tendency to gravitate to other types of business, “there are a lot of bright ones out there that want to be involved in general business, and they are just as interested in produce as they are in widgets,” he said.
Tavilla has been able to “upgrade our support staff by hiring very well qualified people that are very savvy with current methods, use of new and modern technology, and that has worked out very well for us,” he said. One graduate in accounting from the University of Southern California, for example, “has been with us for four years and wants to learn sales.”