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State of the Industry: Top talent remains at a premium

By
Tim Linden

There has been much written about the shortage of labor in the ag industry with growers, shippers, distributors and retailers all vying with other industries to deal with an apparent systemic labor shortage. The need appears to be more acute at the blue-collar end of the spectrum, but what about at the white collar level? Is there a labor shortage? The Produce News attempted to answer the question by interviewing principals at several executive search firms that specialize in the produce industry.

The consensus appears to be that top talent is always at a premium and the produce industry tends to have an aging executive pool with an increased need for younger executives. Other topics explored included the resistance to off-site working in the ag space, what motivates new hires and how the industry fared during the so-called Great Resignation of the past few years.

“We didn’t see a lot of people quitting their jobs and leaving the industry per se, but what we did see were candidates sitting in the driver’s seat at the offer/negotiation stage,” said Performant Scout Co-founders Stacey Rouse and Vanessa Garcia. “It became apparent that companies struggled to retain their top talent, which resulted in numerous counter offers that we had to contend with, so with each project it was imperative to have candidate bench strength.”

Jerry Butt, president and CEO for MIXTEC Group, believes there was a misperception about the Great Resignation and who it impacted. “Employees didn’t just leave their jobs and exit the market altogether,” he said. “It was young adults with lower incomes that were quitting at the highest rate. They didn’t just leave the workforce; they leveraged high labor demand to get what they thought were better jobs: higher pay, better benefits and more flexibility in their schedules.”

At the senior management level in fresh produce, Butt said he observed no evidence of a Great Resignation. “When presented with compelling opportunities, executives resign to pursue their career ambitions. That’s been a reality for decades and is most likely to continue for years to come,” he said.

Concerning the general state of hiring in the produce space, Nathan Stornetta, director of client relations at Produce Careers, noted that the company mainly works in the mid to executive level. “2022 was an active hiring year for the fresh produce industry. We noticed an uptick in inquiries. Companies were ready to add talent once things improved from the pandemic,” he said. “Q1 and Q2 of 2023 were active for both job opportunities and job seekers. As of late, I would say the hiring mode has steadied. It will be interesting to see how things progress considering the economy’s outlook coupled with inflation. Also, with mortgage rates being higher, job seekers aren’t too keen on moving.”

Butt said much of the hiring activity in the industry revolves around the aging of the executive class. “The supply side of fresh produce is dominated by privately held, family-owned-and-operated, multigenerational businesses,” he said. “Many of the owner-operators and members of the senior management teams are over 60. The tsunami of retirements of Baby Boomers has created turnover at the top for several years. Given the high number of family members in key roles, they’re not likely to leave their own business for other companies. That translates to high demand and less talent available for general management positions across the board.”

He added that companies are becoming larger and more complex, which translates to the need of a higher level of sophisticated leadership.

As companies are searching for talent, the experts commented on the openness to look outside the industry and the willingness to allow for remote working conditions.

Rouse and Garcia noted: “Most stay within the industry with some flexibility on their criteria if there is some perishables and food manufacturing exposure.” Concerning remote work, the Performant Scout pair said there has been an uptick in candidates requesting to work remotely or a hybrid schedule. “The mindset in the produce industry is still pretty traditional as most of our clients want their employees onsite,” they said. “Unfortunately, we have seen companies miss out on great hires because of the challenge it would take to break away from this traditional structure.”

Butt observed that most clients prefer fresh produce experience due to the nature of the business. However, he added, “we do see a much greater openness today to professionals coming from other industries especially in the areas of finance, human resources and for operational roles that involve processing.”

Concerning working offsite, Butt said it is often a request of candidates, but not preferred by produce employers. “In executive recruiting, relocation has always been the No. 1 hurdle to access top talent. That has not changed in the past 25 years,” he said. “During the pandemic, working remotely was introduced for the first time on a major scale. We have found that fresh produce companies prefer to have their management teams live and work in one place. Exceptions are generally reserved for sales, marketing and finance roles.”

He added that a company’s openness to some type of hybrid arrangement does dramatically increase the availability of top talent. “Those that believe that people are the last form of competitive differentiation may gain an advantage by considering variations of work schedules as a practical option where it makes sense.”

Stornetta agreed that having industry experience is typically a must. “Generally speaking, most produce companies want talent with produce experience given the unique nature of our industry. It’s fast paced and having the aptitude/industry relationships across the supply chain is vital.”

He added that most produce companies want their employees working onsite but that some companies are starting to look at remote working as a possibility.

With regard to layoffs within the produce sector, none of the executive search representatives believe this is much of an issue.

Stornetta noted that aside from benefits, prospective employees are looking for a company culture that best relates to their needs/wants.  “Having a competitive base salary plus incentives plus good medical coverage plus a 401(K) plus work/life balance is the collective package employees seek,” he said.

Garcia and Rouse also opined that, “we believe we are still in the candidate driven market phase with signs of a slight shift.” They also noted that the job functions most in demand in their sphere are in the operations and sales categories with a candidate being fluent in Spanish a definite plus.

Butt noted that retaining your best employees is still a winning strategy. “Our counsel to the industry has always been to make retention a key part of every strategic plan. Everyone agrees that top talent is hard to find,” he said, adding that a good compensation package, developing and investing in people for advancement opportunities, and demonstrating a high degree of respect addresses the three primary reasons people leave at all levels of an organization.

For Mixtec clients, Butt said top management is the most sought-after position. “Our industry’s leaders are retiring left and right, and where there’s not a next-gen transition this need is greatest.”

Tim Linden

Tim Linden

About Tim Linden  |  email

Tim Linden grew up in a produce family as both his father and grandfather spent their business careers on the wholesale terminal markets in San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Tim graduated from San Diego State University in 1974 with a degree in journalism. Shortly thereafter he began his career at The Packer where he stayed for eight years, leaving in 1983 to join Western Growers as editor of its monthly magazine. In 1986, Tim launched Champ Publishing as an agricultural publishing specialty company.

Today he is a contract publisher for several trade associations and writes extensively on all aspects of the produce business. He began writing for The Produce News in 1997, and currently wears the title of Editor at Large.

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