The Times They Are A-Changing

Nic Jooste, European Market

Originally printed in the June 2018 issue of Produce Business.

I arrived in the Netherlands in 1993. Age 35, I was interviewed for a junior position in a fresh produce company. The owner – a man of around 70 years – said that he preferred to employ somebody older (like me) because ‘the youngsters of today don’t want to work hard, they just want to play, do nothing and go on holiday.’

Today, I still hear the same comments being made, only 25 years later. Are young people inherently lazy, or are we missing something? The fresh produce industry is in desperate need of young blood, yet we struggle to bring them on board. Could this preoccupation with ‘working hard’ be the main barrier? Let’s look at the background.

The fresh produce industry has a history of companies being predominantly family-owned. The boss was at the business morning, noon and night. Autocratic decision-making is often still the primary management style. ‘Don’t do as I do, just do as I say.’ Granted, in the pre-internet era it was important to work long hours. Commercial employees had to get to work early to prevent missing an early order that might arrive via e-mail or the deadline … and stay late in case a client needed to make a last-minute change to his order.

Still today, one observes a tendency among older employees to somehow be driven to be the first one to enter the office in the morning and the last one to leave in the evening. Although all forms of communication are available on our mobile devices, we still want to sit in front of our computer with the landline telephone in our hands. Indeed, old habits die hard!

In my opinion, the challenge is not necessarily a shortage of young people; it is our inability to effectively adapt our old style of working. A career in the fresh produce environment should become as exciting as, for instance, working for Google, Apple or Tesla, where ‘freedom to think’ is a driving force. In the fresh produce industry we, on the other hand, expect young people to adapt to our antiquated style of holding drawn-out meetings, sending multiple e-mails hoping that they do indeed get read, or (even worse) shouting instructions across the sales floor. Most of the ‘commercial processes’ that are used in the fresh produce industry today were all developed during the period 1980–2000. The question is: are they still efficient and relevant?

For the [new generations], it is not just about technology, but also about human skills. Contrary to what we think, they value interaction with other human beings. Everything to them is about the experience. They have a need to interact, to find creative solutions to challenging problems, to do projects in teams, and to achieve solid and successful results together.

One must understand that these new generations grew up immersed in technology, in which the digital world has become their playing field. Information on any topic is merely a swipe away, and young people move effortlessly between Moscow and Minnesota. They simply do not understand our preoccupation with having a physical presence at a physical desk. They would rather work from home if they think it will help them get more done. Everything they need is available through clever use of a mobile device.

We reel in young people because they understand and are able to work with the latest, ‘flashiest’ technology. We then expect them to come up with the magic answers through which we can improve our organizations. But once they start asking questions and making recommendations to streamline processes and communication, we tell them that ‘this is how we have always done the job.’

Before we can actually start on a process of rejuvenating or reviving our old-school fresh produce businesses, we have to gain a deeper understanding of these new generations. Yes, they are technology and data-driven, but one big mistake we make is to think that young people need a fast computer and a top-of-the-range mobile device. Nothing could be more wrong!

For them, it is not just about technology, but also about human skills. Contrary to what we think, they value interaction with other human beings. Everything to them is about the experience. They have a need to interact, to find creative solutions to challenging problems, to do projects in teams, and to achieve solid and successful results together. The operating style of the new generations is described as follows: ‘Everyone is equal; everyone has the same input and it does not matter how many stripes you have. The learning organization, that’s what we want.’ Wow….

On the one hand, the new generations are ambitious and performance-driven, and on the other hand they want a good work-life balance and fair financial compensation. But they also want to have fun in the workplace and a high degree of flexibility. Here is the key: they understand that technology can decrease pressure, just as flexible working times can avoid traffic jams and save time.

I believe that there is only one barrier to getting young people to embark on a career in the fresh produce industry. And that is our own mindset.


Nic Jooste is the director of marketing and CSR at Cool Fresh International, a Rotterdam-based global marketing organization for fresh produce.

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