Early college partnership closing Central Valley skilled agricultural worker gap earns Summit award

580 200 Nadine Ono

(Photo Credit: The Wonderful Company)

As agriculture and technology become more intertwined, employers in California’s Central Valley are experiencing a shortage of highly skilled, college educated workers. One of the region’s largest employers, The Wonderful Company, is addressing those gaps through a program that educates and trains future employees, while also tackling some of the region’s systemic problems.

“About five years ago, we were on a mission to address the cycle of poverty within the five core communities where high concentrations of employees live and work,” said Noemi Donoso, executive vice president of Wonderful Education at the Wonderful Company. “We wanted to do something that would increase the number of students who are going to four-year universities. At the same time, our businesses based in the Central Valley were also struggling as agriculture is becoming increasingly more technologically advanced.”

The result is the Wonderful Agriculture Career Prep program (Ag Prep), which operates in eight high schools throughout the Central Valley. The program begins freshman year of high school as students participate in a career-focused early college model that allows them to graduate with both a high school and an associate of science degree. After high school graduation, Ag Prep students either begin their career or move to a four-year college as a junior, with scholarships from The Wonderful Company.

The Wonderful Company’s Ag Prep program has been selected as one of the top three winners of the California Economic Summit’s 2019 Partnership for Industry and Education (PIE) Contest “I was impressed by the comprehensive and highly collaborative nature of the Wonderful Company’s Ag-Prep program,” said President and CEO of College Futures Foundation Monica Lozano, who was a PIE Contest judge.

“At least 80 percent of our Ag Prep students are first-gen, low income,” added Donoso. “The idea that, not only do they get a free two-year college degree in high school, but they can also go off to a four-year university, get our scholarship and complete it in less time. They can then more quickly transition to a much higher paying job than they would have otherwise.”

Victor Gomez is one of those first-generation college students. He started in the Ag Prep program when he entered The Wonderful College Prep Academy in Delano as a freshman. “I really didn’t know what I was getting into, but after my first year, I was really confident, and I knew that I was supposed to be in the program.” Gomez added that before enrolling in Ag Prep, he didn’t know much about college. Today he is in his second year and a senior at California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo majoring in Agriculture Business and minoring in Agriculture Education.

The Ag Prep curriculum is rigorous with the students taking high school and college classes taught by college instructors. The program has plenty of support for the students from tutors and counselors to ensure success. Students also work on group projects, participate in 200 hours of workplace learning and receive a paid internship with The Wonderful Company.

“That’s why we specifically developed Ag Prep, so when students graduate from high school with a two-year college degree, they also are immersed in the world of work and get significant exposure to skilled jobs,” added Donoso.

The students who start together stay together for four years. Gomez says his cohort was an important part of the program, “I think that was a major part of it, because we grew together as a group with similar schedules. It was really helpful in terms of studying and in terms of understanding what the professors would go over because my classmates were all in the same classes and I could rely on them for support as well.”

The Ag Prep program is proving to be successful as the first two freshmen cohorts are graduating from college and entering the workforce. Eighty-three percent earned an associate of science degree the summer after their high school graduation and 84 percent enrolled in a four-year university.

POM Wonderful Human Resources Director Gladys Lauren knows the value of the Ag Prep program. “We have a particular student who came in through our very first internship. He later decided that he was determined and really wanted to do his one-year fellowship at POM Wonderful. And he recently came on as a POM Wonderful employee.”

For 19-year-old Gomez, he is eligible to graduate from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo with an Agribusiness major in Spring 2020 but wants to spend more time in college to study other subjects that will build on his major, experience college life and possibly pursue a graduate degree. He is also helping his sister, who is a high school senior in the Ag Prep program, apply to college.

When he graduates from Cal Poly, he plans to return to the Central Valley and work in an agriculture-focused job. “That’s home for me. That’s where I grew up. That’s where agriculture is. The Central Valley is a central topic in all my agriculture, policy, world trade and personnel management classes. I feel extremely blessed to be a part of it and to be from there.”

“Their approach is to invest in young people early, inspire them to seek out careers in higher wage jobs in Ag technology, and provide them access to educational supports all the way through B.A. degree attainment,” said Lozano. “The results are so compelling that I would encourage others to consider bringing the program to their region.”

The PIE Contest awards will be presented at the 2019 California Economic Summit which will take place in Fresno on November 7-8.


Nadine Ono

All stories by: Nadine Ono