The Changing Face of the Fresh Produce Workforce

Nic Jooste, European Market

Originally printed in the July 2023 issue of Produce Business.

I recently turned 65. After an old-school, shoulder-to-the-wheel, hard-working career of 30 years in fresh produce, I decided to use my skills to assist companies in strategic plans for marketing, communication and sustainability. The idea was to work one or two days a week. During the COVID-19 pandemic, it worked fine. Fast forward to 2023, and all of sudden, I am working harder than ever on an ever-growing list of assignments.

So, why is a senior citizen like me pulling in work that one would expect to go to a bright, young star? While my experience is supposedly of interest, surely fresh produce companies should be using young people to do modern-day projects? Or are there other reasons?

This has intrigued me for some time, until a recent survey conducted among more than 300 Dutch entrepreneurs and managers brought new insights. It confirmed that older people (often above 60) are indeed finding renewed job opportunities in different segments of the employment markets.

The researchers identified some interesting developments. It seems that especially Generation Z, born between 1997 and 2015, has created a new set of challenges for employers, specifically in fresh produce.

To understand the context, one must also realize that our industry was built by ‘guts and glory’ entrepreneurs on the basis of hard work, long hours and total dedication to the business. Today, these employers (especially the older ones) find themselves annoyed by the younger generation’s seemingly unrealistic salary expectations, desire to be promoted within a year, and their preference for part-time work from home. In contrast, people over age 60 who have the industry knowledge and experience are enjoying renewed interest from employers because they seem to offer a sense of discipline, stability and dedication their younger counterparts sometimes are perceived to lack. (These are the words of the researchers, not mine!)

Young people will deliver the goods, IF we allow them the space and freedom to lead a balanced life.

While I am a huge flag-bearer for fresh produce companies to employ as many young people as possible, the worrying factor is that there is still too big a gap between the ideas that traditional fresh produce entrepreneurs hold, and the expectations of new generations of employees. This is manifested in the results of the recent research.

In The Netherlands, no less than 60% of those surveyed indicate there is a good chance they will now rather consider offering an older person a job over employing a younger person. Last year, this percentage was 55%.

I believe the fresh industry should push the reset button, and come to grips with the fact that after COVID, the world changed radically. Norms and values that applied 20 years ago are disappearing fast, or have become obsolete. COVID brought young people into close contact with the fragile nature of life. Television showed us how fast millions of lives could be wiped out without modern medicine being able to stop the process immediately.

With this in mind (‘my life could be over in a flash, and I haven’t even lived yet’), young employees are very serious about leading a well-balanced life. Working long hours at the office makes them feel their lives are passing them by without them even having a chance to live it fully.

Generation Z is here to stay, and, as with every new generation, this brings new challenges. Now, employers have to deal with a volatile industry, as well as the expectations and demands of a changing workforce. These young people understand the brevity of life much better than what I did when I was 25. So, we must understand that the work norms and values of the ’90s no longer apply. It is quite normal for Generation Z to work part-time. Once they have conquered a job or a discipline, they want to move on. They want to enjoy life in the fullest. That being said, I have a lot of evidence that young people will deliver the goods, IF we allow them the space and freedom to lead a balanced life.

The situation calls for open communication between employers and employees. Fresh produce employers should have clear growth paths they can propose during job interviews to attract younger talent. Mature business owners should enable and empower themselves to foster connections with younger employees, and positively embrace generational diversity. Most importantly, they must ensure that their workforce has a solid balance between older, experienced team members and younger, talented employees who are probably complex to manage. That is the reality of ‘the new fresh.’

In Europe, the fresh produce industry MUST redefine its workforce. We simply do not have enough people who can fill the employment gaps. The experience and expertise of my generation can be invaluable in supporting sustained growth within the fresh produce industry, but it is extremely important to capture the unique contributions that younger employees bring.

Fresh produce companies must develop strategies to create synergies between the generations by being flexible, and by encouraging open communication. Done correctly, this will help provide the fresh produce industry with the necessary stability to flourish in a vastly changing market.

Nic Jooste is an independent advisor on sustainability in fresh produce. He is based in The Netherlands.